The U.S. Food and Drug Administration shortened the suggested abstinence period for gay and bi male blood donors from one year to three months on April 2 — but weeks later, many centers are still turning members of this demographic away.
New York State Sen. Brad Hoylman, who is gay, met the new guidelines but was rejected by the New York Blood Center May 6. In response, the politician penned a letter to the center urging it to change its "outdated screening guidelines" in light of the current health crisis, which has resulted in a shortage in the nationwide blood supply.
Citing statistics from the American Red Cross, Hoylman noted that there were 86,000 fewer donations in March due to the COVID-related closure of around 2,700 blood drives.
NYBC, one of the nation's largest blood-collection nonprofits, responded with a statement, saying it was "pleased" with the new FDA guidelines and attributed the delay to paperwork and transitional issues. "It will take time for us to modify our computer systems and donor questionnaires, and to train staff on new guidelines. We're working as quickly as possible and we expect to welcome these newly eligible donors at the beginning of June," the statement read.
Many centers are still waiting on a new questionnaire from the AABB, once known as the American Association of Blood Banks. The regulatory nonprofit, in turn, had been holding for the completion of a review from the FDA, which was not finished until May 5, reports WABC, an ABC affiliate in NYC.
"On that same day, AABB posted the new FDA recognized documents for use by all blood donor centers," an AABB spokesperson stated. "At this point, blood centers are in the process of updating their policies, procedures and electronic information systems, and all complex regulatory processes which must be completed prior to implementing the new blood donation deferral eligibility for men who have sex with men (MSM) donors."
Regardless, Hoylman is redoubling his call for the FDA to ban any waiting period, which many activists deem a discriminatory holdover from the height of the AIDS epidemic. Hoylman and U.S. Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Carolyn B. Maloney, also New Yorkers, were key political voices in urging the initial abstinence-period changes from the federal agency.
"I'll continue to fight for changes to the FDA's blood donation guidance that prevents most gay and bisexual men from donating blood," he wrote to the NYBC. "This policy is rooted in homophobia and limits our nation's supply of blood and plasma, which I know you agree is more crucial than ever for the research and treatment of COVID-19."
Indeed, Hoylman penned a separate letter to the FDA, noting that any abstinence period treats gay and bi men as "second-class citizens," as the agency would never impose this limit on straight donors. Additionally, the ban is unnecessary with the advent of new technology. Hoylman noted that the agency's "existing policies for screening and testing blood donations virtually eliminate the likelihood of HIV entering the blood pool."
"During the COVID-19 pandemic, we shouldn’t let stigma prevent patients from getting the blood they need. I urge the FDA to heed the calls of medical professionals nationwide and completely lift the ban on sexually active gay men donating blood," he concluded.