Starting April 1, Distance Saves Lives blood drives will be held each Wednesday for 10 consecutive weeks, in partnership with the American Red Cross and MaineHealth.  AP file photo

Business leaders in southern Maine have banded together with unusual speed to address the critical shortage of donated blood caused by the coronavirus outbreak.

Starting April 1, “Distance Saves Lives” blood drives will be held each Wednesday for 10 consecutive weeks, in partnership with the American Red Cross and MaineHealth. With unprecedented swiftness, the business leaders organized the plan in a two-day period. The aggregate goal is to produce more than 1,000 pints of donated blood.

“We as a collective group have all been looking at ways to help the community, in particular the health care system, so this seems like a small thing that we can do that has a big impact on the ability to keep Mainers safe,” said Melissa Smith, the CEO of WEX, who led the campaign.

In the past two weeks, as the spread of the coronavirus has accelerated across the country, over 9,000 blood drives, including 56 in Maine, have been canceled, said Mary Brant, communications manager of biomedical services at American Red Cross of Maine. That equates to 250,000 fewer donations, including 1,400 fewer in Maine, than would be expected. The Red Cross needs to collect 13,000 donations every day to meet the national needs of hospitals.

“The shortage is a severe shortage but what’s really remarkable is the way these businesses are coming together in such short order to say, ‘What can we do?’ ” Brant said. “Normally it takes many weeks to plan a blood drive. This has come together in a matter of days.”

Each of the 10 blood drives will be held on Wednesdays from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. at the Portland Elks Lodge at 1945 Congress St. Those wishing to give blood will need to make an appointment to help make sure all interactions maintain the appropriate socially distancing among donors, as recommended by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The goal is to receive between 100 and 150 donations per session.

To make an appointment, call 1-800-733-2767 or go to www.redcrossblood.org.

The Distance Saves Lives blood drives will use added precautions to ensure the safety of the Red Cross staff and blood donors. Social distancing will be enforced between donors during entry, donation and in refreshment areas. Red Cross staff and volunteer clinical staff from MaineHealth will wear protective gear while taking blood. All staff and donors will have their temperatures taken upon entering the building. Hand sanitizers will be provided.

Tim Hayes, medical director of the blood bank at Maine Medical Center, said the current blood shortage is unlike anything he’s seen in his nearly 30 years working at the hospital. Maine Med’s blood supplier is the American Red Cross. The hospital’s standing order, received five to six days a week, accounts for over 90 percent of all the blood the hospital uses.

“We’ve seen a cut on what we get in our standing order of 25 to 35 percent every day and we tend to use 100 percent of what we get,” Hayes said.

In addition to WEX, companies participating in promoting the blood drive include: Bowdoin College, Dead River Company, Geiger, Hannaford Supermarkets, L.L. Bean, Maine Beer Company, Masthead Maine (which owns the Portland Press Herald), MEMIC, Portland Regional Chamber of Commerce, Portland Sea Dogs, Unum, The VIA Agency and Wyman’s. Other companies expressing support are IDEXX Laboratories, Inc., Luke’s Lobster, Pine State Trading Co., Stonewall Kitchen Company and Thomas Moser Handmade American Furniture.

Mike Bourque is the president and CEO of MEMIC, a Portland-based workers compensation insurance company with about 325 employees in Maine. His company recently had to cancel its planned on-site blood drive because everyone was working from home.

“From the human aspect we’ve had a lot of our employees asking, ‘what can we do to help in this crisis,’ and giving blood, this is something most individuals can do,” Bourque said.

Smith, who oversees 1,500 WEX employees, said the CEOs need to take the lead in reassuring their employee base that making a blood donation is “safe and secure for them,” and that these blood drives will be conducted differently because of the virus outbreak.

“And we have to show up as well. It’s not going to be just us telling people to do it. We have to have senior management participating,” Smith said. “I wouldn’t do it if I felt it was putting my family at risk and at the same time, we have a need in the community. So not doing something, like donating blood, potentially puts your family at risk.”

Maine Beer Company is one of the smallest companies in the campaign, with 75 employees.

“We’re all looking for some good that we can do,” said Steve Mills, the CEO of the Freeport-based craft brewery. “There are so many things out of our control right now and the fact that we can give blood is in our control, and is a clear need, for us a it was a very clear ‘yes’ to participate.”

Hayes said the plan to hold weekly events and spreading out the donations is the best approach.

“Blood has a shelf life. After six weeks it has to be thrown out,” he said. “So there’s no sense in collecting it all now. And the other problem is a donor can’t donate again for another two months. This way we can spread out the donations.”

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