A blood donor clinic pictured at a shopping mall in Calgary, Alta., Friday, March 27, 2020. Canadian Blood Services has today recommended that Canada end the ban on gay men donating blood, in a submission to Health Canada. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh

Canadian Blood Services facing criticism over ending mask mandate this week

Cindy Wilinski, her husband and their four adult children all had upcoming appointments to donate blood but cancelled them this week after learning that Canadian Blood Services had suspended mandatory masking at its facilities.

Wilinski said she and her family donate blood regularly – something they started doing after her granddaughter was diagnosed with leukemia four years ago – but the agency’s move to make masks optional left her concerned about the risk of contracting COVID-19.

“After my initial shock, my immediate decision was that there was no way that myself or my family members would agree to continue to donate blood with the chance of people coming in unmasked,” the 50-year-old Calgary resident said in an interview.

“It’s another kick in the gut, quite frankly.”

Wilinski is among several donors who are criticizing Canadian Blood Services for its decision to suspend mandatory masking and physical distancing at its buildings and collection events.

The agency said people are still welcome to wear masks if they want but noted that its masking decision, which took effect Monday, was made after consultation with medical and epidemiology experts.

Spokeswoman Delphine Denis noted that the agency is a community setting, not a hospital or health-care setting, and as such is able to shift from mandatory to optional measures on masking.

“This can happen because the majority of Canadians are vaccinated against COVID-19, and illness now caused by COVID-19 is far less severe in most cases,” Denis wrote in a statement.

“We continue to ensure that surgical masks and N95s are available to staff, volunteers, visitors and donors.”

Ottawa resident Jamie O’Neil said she won’t soon be donating blood in light of the agency’s move because she supports her 81-year-old father, who has cancer. She said she doesn’t want to risk getting COVID-19 and passing the virus to him.

“It’s a shame, because they are doing a medical business to help people and so they are putting people at risk,” she said. “I don’t want to get sick or pass that on to people that I love.”

Jan Brown, who said she’s donated blood more than 50 times, also said she doesn’t want to donate in light of the agency’s decision.

Brown, 60, said she made her first blood donation when she was 17 years old and her most recent donation towards the end of last month. She’s scheduled to give blood again in November, when a mobile clinic returns to her town of Bridgewater, N.S., but said she’s unsure if she’ll be able to given the agency’s move on masking.

“I want to give blood, but I don’t want to get COVID. If they don’t want to protect me as a longtime donor, I’m not going to be able to take that risk,” she said in an interview.

“I understand that they are in need for donors and they are probably trying to expand their donor base, but I think they need to be more creative.”

Brown said the agency could have some clinics where masks are not mandatory and others where masks are required.

“They really need to think of more creative ways to make space for people who won’t wear a mask,” she said. “I think they are going to lose a lot of longtime donors.”

Canadian Blood Services said the number of people who donate blood regularly decreased by 31,000 donors during COVID-19 pandemic, leaving the agency with the smallest donor base in a decade.

“There are 57,000 open appointments that must be filled before the end of August across Canada to ensure patients have access to life-saving blood products,” Denis, the agency’s manager of media relations, said. “100,000 new donors are needed in Canada this year to keep up with demand.”