The COVID-19 pandemic had a significant impact on every sector in South Africa, including the blood collection services. The main challenges included collecting sufficient blood during lockdown periods, responding to changes in blood product demand, and maintaining a sufficient staff complement to run this essential service.
The implementation of lockdown measures and restriction of social movement had a direct impact on the collection of blood, seeing as a large number of donation clinics took place at schools, universities and businesses that were forced to close. WCBS responded to this crisis by increased advertising for blood donations via radio, and setting up ‘pop-up’ clinics at shopping malls where people were still permitted to frequent. The Western Cape donor population responded swiftly to this call to action and donations saw a spike at the start of Level 5 lockdown in end-March 2020. Donor and staff safety were paramount so strict universal hygiene precautions were implemented at clinics to prevent potential spread of infection, such as COVID-19 symptom pre-screening of donors, widening of the spaces between donor beds and strict use of personal protective equipment.
The healthcare sector responded to the need to prioritise hospital space for COVID-19 affected patients by the postponement of elective surgeries and non-essential medical care. This, along with other socio-economic factors such as the alcohol sales ban in certain lockdown periods causing a reduction in the trauma patient load, resulted in a decline in overall blood product usage compared to the previous calendar year. In the Western Cape, red cell usage dropped by 13.12%, plasma product usage dropped by 16.12% and platelet product usage dropped by 4.18%. National patterns of blood product usage for 2020 will soon be published in the annual national haemovigilance report that will be available on www.wcbs.org.za.
Since the start of the COVID pandemic, WCBS has had a total of 122 COVID-19 positive staff members to date, which accounts for 22.8% of the entire staff complement. We are very fortunate that no employees died from COVID-related illness thus far, although many staff members were affected by the deaths of family members and friends. Staff were offered the opportunity as part of the essential healthcare services to participate in the Sisonke Trial to receive the Johnson and Johnson COVID-19 vaccine in March and April 2021, of which 317 staff members (59.3%) participated.
Despite the many COVID-related challenges faced over the past fifteen months, WCBS has maintained an adequate and safe blood supply for patients in the Western Cape. Several opportunities presented themselves during this period such as the participation in the collection of COVID-19 convalescent plasma for a national clinical trial, and conducting COVID-19 seroprevalence studies in staff and donors (the results of which should be published in the next Lifeblood Edition).