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ConnectLife supplies lifesaving blood to Western New York hospitals amid COVID-19 shortages


Byron, New York, resident Kayla Curry clutched in her hands a bag of snacks, a juice pouch and a “Not All Heroes Wear Capes” T-shirt. She wore a mask, and her upper arm was wrapped in a yellow tourniquet. Curry briefly sat at a refreshments table before exiting Batavia Downs Casino in Batavia, New York, where she attended her blood donation appointment Dec. 7.

“My type of blood is what’s the most needed, the O+,” Curry said. “I just figure I have a bunch of it. I can give some away to somebody that might need it.”

Curry was among hundreds of other Western New York donors who have contributed to the ConnectLife Blood & Organ Donor Network “Holiday Heroes” campaign to support frontline medical workers and those in need of blood supplies in the face of shortages during the coronavirus pandemic.

A registration table, a refreshments table and nurses at a blood drive
At least three ConnectLife staff members are present at every blood drive to assist donors with donation registration at the entrance, the pre-draw screening, the blood drawing and free refreshments after blood has been collected. Donors received T-shirts that read “Not All Heroes Wear Capes. Support the Front Line, Donate Blood” as a thank you for their donations. (Photo by Lauren Leone/Ithaca Week)

ConnectLife’s Challenges With Sustaining Operations in the Midst of COVID-19

ConnectLife is the region’s only community blood bank, which collects, processes and distributes all of its local blood donations to Western New York hospitals, like Erie County Medical Center and Oishei Children’s Hospital in Buffalo. ConnectLife provides over 70% of the region’s entire blood supply.

Before the beginning of pandemic-related closures in March, ConnectLife was engaging in community donation efforts almost every day of the year. Since then, approximately 400 drives have been canceled, equating to the loss of thousands of potential donations. Like many blood centers nationwide, ConnectLife experienced concerns about shortages because, at times, its reserves have dwindled to a one- to two-day supply of blood.

“We had donors who were canceling because they were either getting sick or they were concerned about leaving their home to go out and donate,” said Sarah Diina, ConnectLife senior director of marketing and community development. “So we had to really concentrate a lot on pushing the message that donating blood is safe, that it wasn’t considered a mass gathering and that we needed everyone who is healthy and eligible to come to one of our blood drives.”

To maintain its outreach, Diina said that ConnectLife switched to virtual promotions and communications on social media and collaborated with Erie County public officials to increase awareness and encourage donor registration. The network heightened its safety precautions, like social distancing, time limitations on blood drawings, mask-wearing, body temperature monitoring and frequent sanitation.

The Impacts of ConnectLife Blood Donations on Community Members

ConnectLife’s donor numbers have fluctuated throughout the pandemic based on the ever-changing circumstances, like during periods of virus outbreaks and post-shutdown reopenings. Melanie Brem, the network’s partner relations associate, said ConnectLife has received an outpouring of positive community response to its blood drives amid pandemic challenges.

“Knowing that that blood is on the shelf, I think it’s a bit more reassuring,” Brem said. “Speaking about the City of Good Neighbors, knowing that it’s your neighbor who helped your loved one is an extra sort of sentimental value.”

Chairs are place 6 feet apart at a blood drive
At the Batavia Downs donation site, blood-drawing seats are arranged 6 feet apart and sanitation supplies are stationed throughout the Park Place room in an effort to enhance safety precautions amid a recent uptick in positive COVID-19 cases in Western New York. (Photo by Lauren Leone/Ithaca Week)

“Knowing that that blood is on the shelf, I think, it’s a bit more reassuring. Speaking about the City of Good Neighbors, knowing that it’s your neighbor who helped your loved one is an extra sort of sentimental value.”

– Melanie Brem, ConnectLife Partner Relations Associate

A hospital that accepts blood donations for its patients
Every blood donation collected by ConnectLife staff members stays local at Western New York hospitals like the United Memorial Medical Center in Batavia, New York, which is also being used as a COVID-19 testing site for Genesee County residents. (Photo by Lauren Leone/Ithaca Week)

Brem said she helps ConnectLife coordinate partnerships with local schools and higher-education institutions, businesses, event sponsors and religious and civic groups. This educational programming informs community members about ConnectLife’s mission and the ongoing need for consistent turnouts at blood drives to meet the demands of hospital patients.

“We also have droves and droves of people who view it as kind of their civic duty and their voluntary obligation that, in this time of uncertainty, ‘This is one thing I can do,’” Brem said. “‘I can roll up my sleeve. I can give 45 minutes of my day, coming every 56 days to help make sure that that’s on the shelf if a loved one or a community member needs it.’”

The next opportunity for Western New Yorkers to donate blood in Batavia during the Holiday Heroes campaign is from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Dec. 26 at the Mercy Flight Emergency Medical Services base.

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