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COVID-19 Survivor doctor denied as a blood donor because of his sexual orientation
by Melissa Wasserman

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Dr. Dillon Barron, MD, is in the business of saving lives. At Saint Francis Hospital in Evanston, he as an emergency medicine doctor and most recently he and his partner, Eric Seelbach, tried to donate blood, but were denied because they are gay.

A few months ago, when COVID-19 hit hard, Barron said he and the doctors at the hospital were intubating lots of patients. Exposed to the virus, it was a matter of weeks that Barron started to get a runny nose, aches and chills, but no cough or shortness of breath. It did not seem like corona at first.

Then Seelbach started feeling sick, losing his senses of taste and smell a few days later.

The couple, who have been together for five years and reside in Lake View, tested positive for corona, but saw the positive in having antibodies and were excited at the prospect of donating blood, soon learning this was not a possibility because of their sexual orientation.

"To me, this felt like institutionalized subtle ways of how homophobia is still ingrained in our culture," said Barron. "The Red Cross and all these organizations are in favor of repealing this because they know the science and because they know this law is not based on science, that it's just based in homophobia.

"No person in their right mind, no sane person, would say 'no' to something if the consequence is death versus living; no one would decline my blood."

Dr. Anu Hazra—assistant professor of medicine in the section of infectious diseases and global health at University of Chicago and staff physician at Howard Brown Health—explained the current blood bans on gay and bisexual men are based on policies dating back to the early '80s, when blood was not screened regularly.

The guidelines started as a lifetime ban that relaxed in 2015, to a 12-month ban, then in spring 2020, changed to a three-month ban. This, of course, was referring to the window of time that a man last had sex with another man.

"I think understanding someone's individual risk goes beyond just if they are a man who has sex with men." said Hazra. "What other countries have moved onto is individualized risk assessment. Finding these answers to create an individualized risk assessment to say 'this person would be considered higher risk for HIV and therefore they would not be a potential blood donor,' that's a much more educated and insightful stance than just barring a whole group of people based on their sexual orientation or the fact that they just have sex with even a single partner."

Individual assessments, Hazra said, are really the most evidence based approach in screening blood donors.

Working directly with the Food and Drug Administration ( FDA ), other members of congress and communities involved, U.S. Rep. Mike Quigley ( D-Illinois ) helped introduce the resolution in 2009 calling for nondiscriminatory blood donation guidelines, grounded in science and individual risk factors.

"I think what's driving things now, more than anything, is necessity," said Quigley. Something bad happens—Ald. [Tom] Tunney said this to me-—and they step up like good humans and citizens, they offer to donate blood, they're told that they can't and they're angered confused surprised. They go through all those stages. Here we have COVID-19. We're experiencing extraordinary blood shortages and that's going to continue for some time. So now we have the opportunity to never waste a crisis."

Although impossible to imagine, Quigley went on say there can be a silver lining in this pandemic: ending a discriminatory practice and then saving even more lives.

Barron said he knew about the blood ban, but assumed that it would be lifted during a pandemic. He was shocked to be turned away.

Hazra said it is not a unique situation a he knows other gay and bisexual physicians and healthcare workers who contracted and recovered from COVID and then tried to pursue plasma donation. Each were denied because of restrictions.

"Even during non-COVID times, there are blood shortages super regularly; I can vouch for this as an ER doctor," Barron explained. "To me, I see gay men, as philanthropists for the most part, wanting to help and I know gay men who'd donate blood if they were allowed. There was a study that said if gay men were allowed to donate blood it would result in several hundred thousand extra units of blood being donated per year."

"I will remain committed to the fight to lift the waiting period entirely to make the blood donor system equal," said Quigley. "I feel good that we'll get there."

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