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COVID-19 has shut down many blood drives. Northeastern came to rescue on this one.

Staff from the American Red Cross collect blood from donors in Matthews Arena. Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

On Wednesday, for the first time since the COVID-19 pandemic forced college campuses across the country to close, voices echoed through Northeastern’s Matthews Arena.

Not the voices of fans roaring for a goal or singing the verses of “Stacy’s Mom,” but the voices of Red Cross workers and volunteers setting up for a much-needed blood drive.

“In a time where so many people are starting to feel a little bit isolated, and like things are out of their control, this is an opportunity to take action, to do something good that has a real impact,” said Sonya Ross, the director of risk services at Northeastern. 

People entering the building had their temperatures checked by an infrared forehead thermometer and were required to wear a mask. Photos by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

The Red Cross has been hosting its Boston Strong blood drive in the city every year on April 15, since the 2013 bombing at the Boston Marathon that killed three people and injured more than 260. A surge of people came to donate blood that day, including some runners who rushed straight from the finish line to a local hospital. 

But this year, the blood drive almost didn’t happen. 

Many locations that would typically host the drive—businesses, large conference centers—had shut down, in an effort to slow the spread of COVID-19.

“We were starting to see blood drives cancel on a crazy, unprecedented basis,” said Kelly Isenor, who is the external communications manager for the Red Cross in Boston. “Nationwide, more than 400,000 units of blood that would have been collected otherwise, have gone uncollected because of these cancellations.”

But Kathy Alegria, the Red Cross district manager for donor services recruitment, graduated from Northeastern. She thought her alma mater might be able to help, and she was right. It was just a matter of finding a space where both donors and staff could minimize their risk of contracting the virus. 

“The Red Cross has done blood drives with some of the student groups in the past at Northeastern, and they typically do them over in Bouvé or at the Curry Student Center, but it was really challenging, given the requirements for physical distance,” Ross said. “We don’t want to unnecessarily expose anyone. So, we put our heads together and said, ‘Matthews Arena is the perfect place.’”

Blood can’t be stockpiled for a long period of time, so donations are necessary, even during a pandemic. Photos by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

People entering the building on Wednesday had their temperatures checked by an infrared forehead thermometer and were given masks if they didn’t bring their own. Chairs spread across a section of the empty rink provided a physically distanced waiting area. Donors had their temperatures checked again, this time with an oral thermometer, while they filled out their health information. And after they proceeded to one of the six donation beds under the central scoreboard, volunteers sanitized everything each donor may have touched.  

Ruth Ann Murray, the assistant dean of graduate and workforce development programs in Northeastern’s Bouvé College of Health Sciences, took the morning off to drive into Boston and serve as a volunteer. She was stationed at the post-donation snack tables, where donors are encouraged to rest, load up on calories, and let any dizziness pass. 

Ruth Ann Murray, the assistant dean of graduate and workforce development programs st Northeastern’s Bouvé College of Health Sciences, wipes down tables at the drive. Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

“As soon as this came up, I immediately said yes,” said Murray, who had already donated blood at a different drive. “Somebody’s got to do it, and I wish I was doing more.” 

Unlike the items in your pantry, blood can’t be stockpiled for a long period of time. Blood donations have a shelf life of only 42 days, so stores must be continually replenished with donations. 

“Northeastern came to our rescue,” Isenor said. “The need for blood, the hospital need, doesn’t go away. Car accidents and surgeries and trauma happen every day, whether there’s a pandemic or not.”

And even during a pandemic, there were people ready to leave their homes and give blood. The 62 donor slots filled almost as soon as they were made available. Northeastern is planning to continue to use Matthews Arena for blood drives while the campus is closed, Ross said. The university is already working with the Red Cross to plan the next date.

The blood drive is among a number of measures the university has taken to help in a time of crisis. Earlier this month, university officials opened the West Village E residence hall to first responders on the frontlines of the COVID-19 pandemic. Some of the 135 rooms have already been filled by police and emergency medical service providers.

University researchers have also been leading the effort to model the spread of the virus, and predict its trajectory in the U.S. and abroad. Researchers including Alessandro Vespignani are part of the network of teams creating models to advise the Trump administration on the COVID-19 outbreak.

Hosting the Boston Strong blood drive was another testament to the resilience of the Northeastern community, Ross said.

“I think it’s a testament to Northeastern’s mission and our culture of giving back to the community and being involved that this even happened,” Ross said. “It’s a great opportunity for everybody to come together at a time of a true crisis.”

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