The United States matched its blood donation policies with those of Canada and the United Kingdom on Thursday, easing restrictions on gay men as the world continues its fight against the novel coronavirus outbreak.
While it’s a step forward for the U.S., advocates say it doesn’t go far enough — especially during a global health emergency.
“Right now, everything should be on the table,” said Helen Kennedy, executive director at LGBTQ2 advocacy organization Egale Canada.
“The policy we have now, it’s still based on a stereotype of the perceived notion of promiscuity within the gay male community in particular. It’s a discriminatory policy already, and in a pandemic, these types of restrictions really are magnified in how ridiculous they are in the first place.”
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) new policy is in response to a recent drop in blood donations, as many cancel appointments to abide by physical distancing directions for COVID-19.
The previous rules banned donations from men who have had sex with a man within a year. That same policy applied to women who’ve had sex with gay or bisexual men.
Blood donations from gay and bisexual men have long been restricted in Canada and other countries due to the supposed risk of spreading HIV through the supply. Gay rights groups have long challenged this, citing research that disputes the risk.
The new policy, which the FDA expects to remain in place after the pandemic ends, reduces the disqualifying period for gay and bisexual American men to three months — bringing it in line with what Canada imposed about a year ago.
The Canadian government lowered the abstinence period to three months in June 2019. It was the third time Health Canada lowered the deferral period for men who have sex with men. Prior to 2013 — as demographics of HIV-positive individuals changed dramatically — they were under a lifetime ban.
As the global COVID-19 pandemic began to tighten its grip on Canada, Canadian Blood Services noticed a drop in donations. So much so, it prompted Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to issue a plea to healthy Canadians to consider booking an appointment.
“Even if you don’t work in a hospital you can still keep people healthy. For example, we still need blood donors. If you’re able, consider going in and donating,” he said.
When asked whether Canada would consider further reducing that deferral period with the pandemic in mind, the government provided no clear answer on possible changes.
Federal Health Minister Patty Hadju reiterated that it’s safe for Canadians to donate blood during the outbreak and asked donors to keep their appointments, but did not elaborate on whether Canada would open its policies.
“Canada has one of the safest blood systems in the world, supported by evidence-based policy,” she said in an emailed statement Thursday.
“The finish line is within sight, and we’ll keep working with Canadian Blood Services and Hema Quebec until we cross it.”
In response to a Global News inquiry about the U.S. changes, Canadian Blood Services (CBS) said work to “evolve the blood donation eligibility criteria” for “further evidence-based changes” is ongoing and includes more than a dozen research projects.
“The goal of this unique research funding program is to generate adequate evidence to inform alternative screening approaches for blood and plasma donors, which could evolve the current eligibility criteria for men who have sex with men,” the agency said in a statement.
To Kennedy, widening the parameters is “low hanging fruit” for Canada amid COVID-19.
“It’s an opportunity to show leadership,” she said.
“Lives are at stake, and why would we wait?”
“It’s something that should be on the table, it should be discussed and a decision made.”
Some provinces are noticing a decline in blood supply as safety measures to slow the outbreak have ramped up.
CBS saw a spike in cancellations in March, spokesperson Marcelo Dominguez told Global News Morning B.C. recently. A call-out for donations brought relief and improved inventory, he said, but it’s a short term solution.
It needs to be treated like “a marathon, not a sprint,” said Dominguez.
“Our message to folks is that we absolutely appreciate their support, their blood donations are helping hospital patients across Canada with all sorts of different conditions. They’re depending on blood donations from people every day — as most people know, every 60 seconds in Canada someone needs blood.”
Dominguez said CBS, like many other health services across the country, are learning to adapt to the impacts of the pandemic on the fly. He said it’s understandable that some people felt “uneasy” about keeping their appointments as restrictions on avoidable interactions tighten, but echoed that donating blood during COVID-19 is safe.
“Our donation centres are usually places of wellness. In normal times, we’ve got very, very strong cleaning and infection control and screening practices in place to ensure that when people do come in to donate blood they’re doing so in a healthy environment, and we’ve only enhanced those measures,” he said.
Kennedy said the pandemic is an “all-hands-on-deck” scenario that should allow all Canadians the chance to help should they choose to, regardless of their sexual orientation.
“But our government needs to be looking toward every single opportunity to help during this crisis, and this is one that could benefit a lot of people.”
–With files from the Associated Press