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Blood banks refuse to accept donations from gay and bi men despite FDA easing restrictions

Although the FDA recently relaxed its restrictions on blood donations from gay and bisexual men in light of the pandemic, many blood banks across the country are yet to accept the revision.

Blood banks refuse to accept donations from gay and bi men despite FDA easing restrictions
Cover Image Source: Getty Images (representative)

Earlier this month, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) relaxed its restrictions on blood donations from gay and bisexual men. Although the federal agency made the move in light of the pandemic and under pressure from lawmakers, many blood banks across the country are yet to accept the revision. Lukus Estok, a 36-year-old New Yorker who recently beat the novel Coronavirus, faced discrimination first hand just days after the FDA revised its guidelines when he signed up to donate plasma for a study that uses the antibodies of survivors to treat patients who are severely ill.



Despite successfully completing several rounds of screenings, Estok claims he was turned away by the New York Blood Center in mid-April when he informed the staff taking his information that he is a gay man. Speaking to VICE, he said the expression on her face "immediately changed" when she heard he's gay. Although she had a mask on, he says he saw her eyes turn "cold" as she sternly said: "You will not be donating today." Although Estok tried to explain that the FDA had relaxed its prior restriction—which required men to abstain from sex with another man for at least a year before they could give blood—he was told: "I don't know what you think you know, but you will not be donating here today."



Estok explained that he felt deflated by the entire experience when he left the blood center as he'd been hoping to help in some way during the ongoing health crisis. "I cried," he said. "I felt less than. Right now, I spend 23 and a half hours a day inside my small, one-bedroom apartment and so anything that I could do that might be of assistance or have a positive impact feels incredibly important to me. I felt a need to do whatever I can to make someone else’s experience better than I had it—or at least make it so that it’s not significantly worse."


Brennon Mendez, a 24-year-old law student, shared a similar experience with The Guardian. Mendez, who'd been ecstatic about the FDA update, was also turned away by a blood bank when they learned of his sexual orientation. "I've been waiting to donate blood for my entire adult life, and the current blood shortage caused by Covid-19 made that desire that much more urgent," he said. Mendez had made an appointment at the UCI Health Blood Donor Center in Orange, California, the day the new guidelines were published. However, when he arrived, he was turned away.


The receptionist informed him the clinic wasn’t yet complying with the new FDA guidance. "I felt stigmatized, and I also felt outraged that such a refusal to adapt to the urgent circumstances of this crisis would result in less blood being available to those who need it most," said Mendez. Addressing the incident, John Murray, the assistant director of communications at UCI Health said the clinic did not intend to "marginalize any person who wishes to donate blood or plasma." He stated that the blood center’s ability to implement the new guidelines "depends on revision to and FDA approval of the American Association of Blood Bank’s donor history questionnaire."


"Once that is completed by AABB, UCI Health Blood Donor Center procedures can be revised to ensure compliance and staff retrained," Murray said. Meanwhile, the Red Cross and America’s Blood Centers predicts it could be months before they are prepared to comply with the revised FDA policies. Despite saying in a statement that it is "working aggressively" to implement the updates, the Red Cross claimed the process will take time as it "includes potentially thousands of individuals and involves complex system updates."


"This is it," said Estok of the discrimination he faced. "This country deserves no more of me than I am forced to give them. That feeling of defeat and that feeling of being less than has a profound psychological effect. Right now, we’re all going through something deeply traumatic and additional trauma on top of that does not help. I have every reason to believe that this policy is dissuading people from attempting to donate at all."


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