Introduction: The World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a global pandemic on 03/11/20. Subsequent concerns around caring for patients with sickle cell disease who require automated red blood cell (RBC) exchange transfusions emerged, especially in the setting of physical distancing and national shortages in blood product supplies. In this vulnerable population at high risk of allo-immunization, ideal transfusion parameters (e.g., antigen optimization) will likely grow increasingly difficult to satisfy and require careful evaluation and strategic planning.

Methods: Automated RBC exchange transfusions were performed at the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB) in patients with sickle cell disease for a variety of clinical indications with the primary objective of lowering the amount of Hemoglobin S (goal 15%) and replacing it with Hemoglobin A. We collected the number of weekly RBC exchange transfusions performed and then compared the frequencies between 01/05/20 and 03/14/20 (pre-pandemic) to those between 03/15/20 and 08/01/20 (intra-pandemic) using a one-tailed t-test. We also examined the number of RBC units ordered per week at UAB, in both the inpatient and outpatient settings, shortly before and after the declaration of a global pandemic using a one-tailed t-test.

Results: The mean frequency of RBC exchange transfusions performed per week was 8.1 [standard deviation 2.3] pre-pandemic and 8.6 [2.3] intra-pandemic (Figure 1a). There was no statistically significant difference (p=0.27) in the frequency between these two periods. Shortly prior to the start of the pandemic (02/23/20-03/14/20), a mean of 77.3 [17.9] units/week were ordered for outpatient RBC exchange transfusions. Shortly after the start of the pandemic (03/15/20-04/26/20), a mean of 55.3 [22.8] units/week were ordered for outpatient RBC exchange transfusions, which was also not significantly different (p=0.09). During this time period, the mean number of RBC units per week ordered in the inpatient surgical setting significantly declined from 719.3 [43.1] to 390.0 [46.8] as elective procedures were delayed (p<0.005) (Figure 1b).

Conclusions/Future Directions: The frequency of automated RBC exchange transfusions performed at UAB did not decrease after the onset of the pandemic. UAB was able to continue caring for patients with sickle cell disease receiving RBC exchange transfusions as the pandemic emerged and national blood product supplies declined despite a similar overall demand. Interestingly, there was also a concomitant decrease in the demand for RBCs from inpatient surgical settings as elective procedures were delayed, possibly contributing to the blood bank's ability to maintain ideal transfusion parameters and perform antigen optimization of transfused RBCs. As the COVID-19 pandemic continues, the national shortage of blood product supplies will likely worsen and necessitate multidisciplinary efforts, including intra-institutional and inter-institutional collaborations, to continue caring for patients with sickle cell disease receiving RBC exchange transfusions. Furthermore, community education, safely structured blood drives, and other efforts to encourage donations are essential to maintain the national blood product supply.


No relevant conflicts of interest to declare.

Author notes


Asterisk with author names denotes non-ASH members.