Once again, the mantra of Never let a crisis go to waste rears its ugly head as we all try to survive the coronavirus pandemic. This time it is in the charge of homophobia being tossed at the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and its blood donation guidance.
Is it an antiquated and homophobic policy in place by the FDA which rejects blood donations (or plasma) from a gay man if that man has had sex within the last three months? This is the case that Bravo executive producer and television show host Andy Cohen makes after he tried to donate plasma last week. Cohen is a survivor of COVID-19 and was answering a call for plasma donors, specifically from coronavirus survivors, from the medical community in New York City, where he lives. Mount Sinai hospital is looking for plasma for antibody trials. He thought he found a perfect way to help.
On Friday Cohen went on Anderson Cooper’s CNN show and told him of his experience when he tried to volunteer to donate plasma. Cohen and Cooper are friends – they co-host the New Year’s Eve celebration in Times Square for CNN.
“I recovered from coronavirus and read in the paper and all over the place in New York City that Mount Sinai hospital put out an urgent call for donors who had survived coronavirus. They were looking for plasma for antibody trials. They were using the plasma from people who had recovered from coronavirus to treat people who had coronavirus and to study it,” Cohen told CNN’s Anderson Cooper Friday.
Cohen said he responded to the call and was told that he sounded “like a perfect candidate” to give his plasma. Cohen told CNN that after he expressed his interest in donating, he mentioned to the donation program that he is a gay man. He was then told that he could not give plasma.
Andy Cohen also told his story on his own show, Watch What Happens Live on the Bravo cable network. He did so at the end of his show and reactions from his show’s guests are included in the video clip.
Cohen has seen his career take off in connection to this relationship with the popular Real Housewives of Whatever shows over the years. He’s been out of the closet for years and very active in LGBTQ causes. Why was it such a shock to him that he was rejected? He’s not stupid, he surely knew what the FDA policy was before he tried to donate. It sure looks like to me that he did it to garner headlines and use the platform to push for change in the government guidelines.
The FDA revised its previous guidelines earlier this month because of the need for blood during the coronavirus pandemic. The rules have been relaxed to allow gay men to donate if they have not had sex with another man for three months instead of the previous rule of 12 months.
The FDA has announced a relaxing of its restrictions on gay men being allowed to donate blood, in light of the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic. Red Cross figures in March showed a drop-off of 86,000 fewer blood donations across the United States, due to almost 2700 blood drives that had to be cancelled.
Now, instead of 1 year, if a male has had sex with another male, he need only wait 3 months to donate blood. However, controversy still surrounds the FDA’s newest guidance, as some say it is continues to be based not on fact but on prejudice. The original ban on donations was born during an era when HIV was not well understood and few men with AIDS survived.
Cohen makes the point that if the concern is over HIV, a quick test taken at the blood donation location could reassure that the donor was HIV-negative. He goes on to conflate homosexual sex with heterosexual sex. He denies that gay sex is a high-risk activity.
“I understand the concerns about gay men being a higher risk for carrying HIV, but there are HIV tests that can be administrated in 20 minutes. So I could go, I could take an HIV test, they could tell me in 20 minutes, and they then retest your blood from what I understand. They do another HIV test of your blood,” Cohen said.
“There could be sexually promiscuous heterosexuals who’ve had plenty of sex in the last three months who can go in no questions asked and give blood,” he said.
“I think that the plasma in my body can absolutely help someone or possibly cure someone.”
Blood donations are tested for HIV and other factors. The quick test at the time of a blood donation though would add to the work of the medical staff, wouldn’t it? Why intentionally try to donate if you know you aren’t following the guidelines? Instead, he goes on television and cries foul. Did he think his celebrity made him above the rules? He’s probably more well-known in the NYC area than in other parts of the country. Maybe he was looking for a feel-good moment. He specifically says he thinks his plasma can save a life. Tom Hanks and Rita Wilson are donating blood for coronavirus vaccine research. Let’s hope Cohen tried in good faith to make a donation, not just to jump on the bandwagon.
The FDA first put blood donation guidance from gay men into effect when HIV began to become a public health epidemic in the early 1980s. The first restriction was that any gay man who had sex since 1977 was ineligible to donate blood. That rule stayed in place until 2015 when, during the Obama administration, the FDA revised the rule to a one-year limit. So, even with the emergency relaxation of that rule, it’s not enough. Cohen wants to know what year it is.
“Maybe because we’re valuing stigma over science,” he continued. “My blood could save a life, but instead it’s over here boiling! This pandemic has forced us to adapt in many ways. We’re quarantining, we’re social distancing. We’re wearing masks! Why can’t we adapt when it comes to this rule?”
“It’s bad enough that quarantining has us wondering what day it is,” Cohen said. “I’m sitting here wondering what year it is! We need to think about this and do better.”
As I said, I think this was deliberate on the part of Andy Cohen. If he wants to donate his blood for plasma to fight the coronavirus pandemic, he’ll have to play by the rules and abstain from sex for three months. Sometimes even celebrities aren’t so special.