The American Red Cross and Grace Missionary Baptist Church will host a blood drive Friday with free COVID-19 antibody testing available to anyone who donates at the church on West Elm Street in Athens.

The blood drive and testing event will take place from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. Stephanie Holcomb, of the local chapter of the American Red Cross, said it will be held inside the church's fellowship hall to promote social distancing.

Holcomb said those who attend are asked to wear face masks, and masks will be provided for those who don't have one. There will also be a temperature screening station, as anyone with a temperature above 99.5 degrees will not be allowed to participate. Holcomb advised anyone who feels sick or believes they might be positive for the novel coronavirus not to attend.

"With every blood donation, we'll do an antibody test," Holcomb said. "What we don't want is people who are feeling sick or think they have the virus contaminating a healthy population to donate blood."

The antibody test is designed to show if a person has had a past infection from the virus that causes COVID-19, even if they had mild or no symptoms. Donors should receive their results five to seven days after their donation, Holcomb said. Red Cross will not be testing for active infections or current carriers of the virus.

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Holcomb said many blood banks are experiencing an unusual shortage in blood donors this year due to schools and universities — some of Red Cross' most common blood drive locations — being closed early due to the pandemic. Blood banks tend to advertise a critical need later in the summer, when students and families have been out of school or on vacation and unable to donate, but the need arrived earlier and more urgently this year.

"This year has been such an exception, because we had to stop university and hospital drives back in March," she said. "So what offset that is our hospitals quit doing elective surgeries, but now that we're back doing elective surgeries, it's bad."

Alabama is also an import state, she said. The blood donated at events like the one held Friday will stay local, but that's in large part because there aren't enough people donating blood and helping meet the need. Red Cross handles about 55% of the nation's donated blood supply, including transporting it to places like Alabama.

"We're very thankful that Red Cross supplies the nation, because other states supply us," Holcomb said.

Still, the overall shortage is a concern, and it can be even more concerning for people with specific needs that limit the kind of blood transfusions they can accept. For example, Holcomb said Red Cross supplies blood for sickle cell patients at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, and "in many cases, caucasian blood will not be a good fit for someone needing a blood transfusion in a sickle cell program that is African American."

"We need minority blood," she said. "Most people have no idea that that's the case. We have a significantly lower population of minorities in general that donate."

She said the option to receive an antibody test has encouraged a lot of people who would normally avoid blood donation to come out and support their community. Red Cross has been offering the test at all donation events since June 15.

"We would love to see a very diverse crowd" at the Athens event, Holcomb said, adding there have been changes to some of the restrictions commonly placed on blood donation, including those regarding sexual activities and medications.

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