When the COVID-19 pandemic decimated travel demand, resulting in drastic flight reductions, we knew how important it would be for Hawaiian Airlines to maintain our neighbor island network to support Hawai‘i’s healthcare workers and first responders.

Preserving this connectivity has been essential for the Blood Bank of Hawaii (BBH), which depends on our interisland flights to timely transport blood supplies across the state. Every other week, as much as 18 percent of the state’s blood supply comes to O‘ahu from the neighbor islands.

Like many organizations, BBH’s operations have been disrupted by the pandemic, and Justin Martin, its marketing manager, tells us the group has adapted by including social distancing at its collection sites, requiring donors to schedule appointments, mandating face coverings and temporarily suspending certain blood drives.

Hawai'i Lt. Gov Josh Green with Blood Bank of Hawaii President and CEO Kim-Anh Nguyen during his convalescent plasma program (CCP) donation at the Dillingham Donor Center.

While donating blood is the best way we can all ensure the BBH has enough supply to meet demand, our HawaiianMiles members can contribute by gifting their miles.  BBH is one of 14 partner organizations in our HawaiianMiles Charity Program that are benefiting from our Giving Tuesday miles promotion.

For every mile donated on Dec. 1, Hawaiian will match up to 100,000 HawaiianMiles to each recipient organization – on top of 500,000 miles, we pledge to match annually.

We recently spoke with Martin to learn about how BBH has been persevering through the challenges of the pandemic.

How has the COVID-19 pandemic impacted the work and operations of the Blood Bank of Hawaii?

Almost every aspect of our work has been impacted – from operations, including the logistics of keeping our blood supply products moving to and from each neighbor island hospital – to hospital and donor facing services. We became more communicative, cohesive and transparent as an organization due to the tremendous challenges we faced. It was important that our staff, hospitals and donors were all aware of the changes we were going through, and we really pulled together to make it through this year.

We’re proud of the COVID-19 Convalescent Plasma program (CCP) that we launched in April. It gives us the opportunity to collect plasma from recovered patients and offer it to hospitals, who have ordered more than 1,000 doses for Hawai‘i’s patients.

Unfortunately, our collections took a hit because mobile operations hosted by private organizations including schools, churches and businesses, not to mention government agencies, contributed to 70 percent of our total blood collection. For example, high school student drives, which were also canceled, comprised approximately 12 percent of all donations statewide. Travel restrictions to the neighbor islands further constricted our collection system to a few donor sites on O‘ahu. Only recently we’ve been able to expand to host one neighbor island drive a month.

For several months, we had to rely exclusively on O‘ahu donors to supply enough blood, plasma and platelets for our entire state. We are so thankful for the incredible support of our donors who came out despite the pandemic; and incredible community partners including Walmart Kapolei, Adventist Health Castle, Kāne‘ohe Shopping Center and Waikele Center, all of whom have allowed our bloodmobiles to operate on their sites.

How have you adapted and modified how you provide services such as blood drives?

As we continued to learn about COVID-19, Blood Bank of Hawaii also continued to evolve and adapt, making several changes to typical day-to-day operations in order to meet the strictest public health and safety guidelines. First, we proactively canceled all blood drives sponsored by private organizations. We also reconfigured each donor center and bloodmobile by removing or reorganizing furnishings to maintain safe social distancing. New sanitation and cleaning protocols have been implemented, as well as staff policies related to health and safety.

In order to donate, donors must be healthy and will be pre-screened upon arrival. For donors, one adjustment has been that our registration policy changed from accepting walk-in appointments (based upon availability) to now requiring an appointment in advance. Of course, masks or face coverings are required by everyone, and staff wear extra personal protective equipment.

As we’ve begun returning to the neighbor islands, we are extra vigilant to help mitigate any potential for community spread. All traveling staff must be cleared with a COVID-19 test prior to departure and they have additional safety and health procedures to follow throughout their trip. Those procedures have been shared and approved by each neighbor island county mayor.

Blood Bank of Hawaii President and CEO Kim-Anh Nguyen with her staff celebrating World Blood Donor Day at the Young Street Donor Center.

What is the biggest challenge facing the Blood Bank today?

The biggest challenge we face today is the continued constriction of our normal blood collection operations due to COVID-19. This has meant that during some days and weeks, we have operated at minimum supply levels. It’s not sustainable for the long term or if we were to face an increasing demand from our local hospitals, a significant incident or weather event that resulted in a large number of emergency room or trauma needs.

We hope that as O‘ahu residents especially feel more comfortable that we do provide a safe and sanitary donation experience, they will come forward in greater numbers, knowing the ongoing need that our state has for their voluntary act of generosity.

How can the community support your efforts especially at this time?

Essentially, our primary need is and always has been sufficient local residents rolling up their sleeves to donate blood, platelets and plasma, including CCP. It takes 150 to 200 donors a day to comfortably meet statewide demand – that means having at least one week’s supply of all blood types at any one time. It also takes a diverse community of donors to make that possible. We also need donors with all blood types, from the most common to the rarest, because successful blood transfusion procedures are dependent on matching blood type between the donor and the recipient.

If you can’t donate blood for any reason, donating HawaiianMiles is a great way to contribute to our mission. Our neighbor island blood drives are integral to maintaining our state’s diverse inventory of blood types and we have donors on every island.  

How have/will you be utilizing the miles?

The HawaiianMiles will be used by our teams to go to each of the neighbor islands to collect blood at monthly blood drives. When it is safe to attend in-person meetings and conferences again, BBH staff will also use the miles for professional development, training that’s only available outside Hawai‘i and/or collaboration with other blood banks across the country at national or regional industry conferences and events.

Each year, BBH hosted an annual high school workshop for high school Lifesaver Clubs. We hope we can resume this event in 2021 and would like to award travel scholarships for neighbor island faculty advisers and students who would like to attend our O‘ahu workshop. We may also use the miles for events or trips associated with donor appreciation events or community awareness initiatives. We are cautiously optimistic that 2021 will enable us to do much more travel on Hawaiian Airlines that will help us to fulfill our statewide mission.