Typically in times of national disasters, people line the streets to donate blood. But in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, the act of donating likely puts donors at increased risk of infection.

Yet, doctors across the country are asking young people to donate anyway.

Dr. Ralph Vassallo, chief medical and scientific officer for Vitalant, said the demand for blood transfusion is greater than the blood supply available. That demand, Vassallo said, is not going away despite the outbreak.

In order to limit the spread of COVID-19, on Wednesday Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham instituted additional social distancing restrictions and directed New Mexicans "to avoid contact with others in all scenarios except those essential to public health, safety and welfare."

Vassallo asserted that maintaining the blood supply is a matter of public health and safety and a necessary exception to the social distancing requirements.

"Requests that people don't meet in groups of 10 or more (don't) apply to a blood center or a blood drive because those are critical health care events that we really need to make sure that we keep on the books so that patients get the blood they need," Vassallo said.

He also confirmed that social distancing recommendations have impacted the blood supply.

According to an article in US News and World Report, retirees are among the most reliable donors, and according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) they are also among the most likely to experience "severe disease, including hospitalization, admission to an intensive care unit and death" if they contract COVID-19.

"Cancellations keep coming in every day," Vassallo said. "As schools close (and) as more restrictive social distancing goes into place ... it makes it difficult for people to get out to blood drives."

SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, qualifies as highly contagious and is thought to be spread mainly from person-to-person and by touching objects with the virus on it, according to the CDC.

Aussy Levi, Vitalant's senior manager for donor recruitment in New Mexico, said the company has been working on protocols for how they run their blood drives, mobile buses and recruitment strategies.

"When we are doing our calls for help for donors, we are actually dealing with healthy people — that's who is showing up," Levi said.

Levi said employees at Vitalant are having potential donors space themselves out so they aren't in the same place at the same time in donation center waiting areas.

"We are having our donors remain in their cars before they go into the eligibility booth, before they donate, to ensure that we are not having congregation of individuals in a small space," Levi said.

Levi said they conduct screenings in "eligibility booths," located inside of their donation facilities. Vitalant employees ask questions about recent travel, take temperatures and ask donors to self-report if they are feeling healthy.

Levi said their blood centers have replaced the couches in waiting areas with chairs that are six feet apart, in accordance with CDC guidelines.

"We are not having anybody who is deemed ineligible sit in our donation area — they are deferred, meaning that we send them away," Levi said.

On a national level, Vassallo said that every center should have a sign at the front door warding off donors who have traveled to CDC level 3 countries, where the coronavirus outbreak is especially bad.

Vassallo added they are not testing potential blood donors for COVID-19.

As of March 18, the virus and other coronaviruses have not been shown to be transmitted through blood transfusions.

"No one that has been healthy has had the virus observed in their blood ... We haven't looked very carefully yet," Vassallo said. "But we don't think that the risk is very high at all."

Senior director of transfusion medicine and therapeutic pathology at UNMH Dr. Jay Raval confirmed to the Daily Lobo Wednesday that due to the decrease in the blood supply, UNMH has instituted more restricted transfusion requirements for patients.

Less than 1% of infected people aged 20 to 54 have died from COVID-19 in the United States, according to preliminary data in the CDC's March 18 Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report. No one 19 or under has died from COVID-19, according to the report. Yet unintentional injuries, like car accidents, are the leading cause of death for people between the age of 1 and 44, according to the CDC's Injury Prevention and Control website.

According to the Red Cross Blood Services website, a single car accident victim can require as many as 100 units of blood.

Lovelace Health System is partnering with Vitalant to hold a blood drive on Wednesday, March 25, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. in the parking lot of Longfellow Elementary School, located at the corner of Dr. Martin Luther King Avenue and Walter Street.

According to a City of Albuquerque release about the drive, "all blood collected will stay in New Mexico."

The drive was full as of Friday afternoon, but the donor website urged residents to "contact your blood drive coordinator so that we can expand the drive or so that you can be added to a waiting list" To become a donor, click here or call 505-246-1457.

Vitalant's Albuquerque Donation Center is located at 1515 University Blvd. NE and is open Monday through Saturday, opening early on Fridays and Saturdays and staying open late on Wednesdays. To become a donor, call 1-877-258-4825 or visit www.vitalant.org.

The New Mexico Department of Health did not respond to requests for comment by the time of publication.

Lissa Knudsen is a public health beat reporter at the Daily Lobo. She can be contacted at news@dailylobo.com or on Twitter @lissaknudsen