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Vaccine concerns prompt blood-labeling bill, but experts say there’s no scientific basis

Amid vaccine skepticism and blood shortages, House Bill 115 would require asking the COVID-19/mRNA vaccine status of blood donors, providing some patients a choice to use blood from the unvaccinated.

Rep. Sarah Penn (R-Lander) is sponsoring HB 115 to give blood transfusion patients a choice over blood from vaccinated or unvaccinated donors. (Ashton J. Hacke/WyoFile)

by Madelyn Beck, WyoFile

Wyoming patients getting blood transfusions could soon have a choice whether or not to use blood from someone who’s had a COVID-19 or messenger RNA vaccine. However, multiple blood transfusion groups and the FDA say there is no evidence that COVID-19 vaccines harm people via blood transfusions.

House Bill 115 – Donated blood-mRNA disclosure dictates that this decision would only apply in non-emergency situations, but the bill is part of a movement in the U.S. to give patients opposed to COVID vaccines an option. 

That includes a failed bill in Montana last year to ban blood donations from those vaccinated against COVID-19, and a failed bill to give individuals a choice “to have a blood transfusion from an unvaccinated blood donor” in Connecticut.

House Bill 115, sponsored by nurse practitioner Rep. Sarah Penn (R-Lander), would require people collecting blood donations to ask donors whether they’ve ever had a COVID-19 vaccine or an mRNA vaccine. If donors say yes, their blood must be “conspicuously marked.” 

After all that, when someone in need of blood is at the hospital in a non-emergency situation, they’d have the right to choose whether to use the marked blood or not “as long as the requested blood is available.”

The legislation came from concerns over new mRNA treatments, Penn said. 

“Many have strived to keep their bodies free of this technology,” she wrote in an email. “They have had family members and friends suffer complications from mRNA therapies. The adverse effects are being increasingly documented in the literature.”

Penn went on to list complications of COVID-19 vaccines like myocarditis — an inflammation of the heart tissue — in explaining her reasoning behind blood labeling. 

“We cannot confidently say that there isn’t risk,” she wrote. “The burden of proof is on those claiming its safety and we … do not have the proof.”

Alternately, organizations like the American Red Cross and America’s Blood Centers argue there’s no proof of a risk from these transfusions.

“It’s impossible to prove a negative,” Association for the Advancement of Blood and Biotherapies Chief Medical Officer Dr. Claudia Cohn told WyoFile. “Nonetheless, if you look at a disproportionate number of people who have received this mRNA vaccine and have been given blood, and people who have received that blood, there’s no evidence of harm. So my opinion on the scientific validity of [passing HB 115] is it does not exist.”

Meanwhile, there is clear evidence of blood shortages from donors nationwide. 

Patient concerns and science

While rare, there have been documented cases around the country of people demanding blood from those who haven’t received COVID-19 vaccines.

“These same [U.S.] patients, some of whom are likely to imminently require blood, have refused to consent to transfusion unless they can be assured that the blood donor did not receive a COVID-19 vaccine, regardless of the risk of morbidity and mortality,” researchers stated in a paper published in 2021 in the British Journal of Haematology. 

Those same researchers said pandering to people demanding blood from unvaccinated donors could open the door to other unscientific demands — like blood from a particular race or sex.

Wyoming’s proposed legislation is narrowly focused, Penn said, adding “I simply want to make sure that mRNA is identified specifically.”

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration recommends people who’ve been vaccinated against COVID-19 still donate blood, though it suggests a short waiting period for certain types of vaccines, excluding the mRNA vaccine. 

“Many have strived to keep their bodies free of this technology.” REP. SARAH PENN (R-LANDER)

Meanwhile, the American Red Cross, America’s Blood Centers and the Association for the Advancement of Blood and Biotherapies issued a joint statement last year, stating transfusions from people who’ve been vaccinated are safe and that vaccine components don’t replicate via transfusions or alter blood recipients’ DNA.

“[T]here is no scientific evidence that demonstrates adverse outcomes from the transfusions of blood products collected from vaccinated donors and, therefore, no medical reason to distinguish or separate blood donations from individuals who have received a COVID-19 vaccination,” the group said. 

AABB even published a flyer to help doctors who were hearing concerns from patients about getting blood from vaccinated donors — something that’s happening around the continent and the globe

There’s also the issue of blood crossing state lines.

“Blood is moved across states all the time,” Dr. Cohn with AABB said. “And so if Wyoming is to receive blood from neighboring states, then those bags will not be labeled.”

Beyond that, Cohn said, items on labels attached to blood donations — like the markings mentioned in HB 115 — result from FDA confirmation tests. “Labeling means that an FDA approved test has been run,” Cohn said. “And the results of that test are required on the blood bag label. And there is no FDA approved test to look for the vaccine in donor blood.”

Even if that issue was overcome, Cohn said, people could lie on donation forms and there’s no test to fact-check them.

People can already lie on blood donation forms, Penn said. But there are at least tests to check for proven dangers like HIV, Cohn noted. 

“We may not achieve perfection but we can begin the process to take one more step towards safety,” Penn said in an email.

People can donate blood to their future selves or get direct donations from friends and family they trust, but Cohn noted that these requests are only granted when medically necessary in many institutions — like if someone has a rare blood type. 

“It’s a logistical nightmare,” she said, pointing to her work at the University of Minnesota hospital’s blood bank. “We release hundreds of units [of blood] a day. And if we have to segregate a unit for a single patient [while shifts come and go], the chance that there’s a mistake is greater.”

The FDA has its own issues with direct donations used to avoid blood from vaccinated donors, saying they “lack scientific support.”

Blood donor supplies are already low, with only about 3% of eligible donors giving, Cohn added.

“After the airplane industry, I’ve been told that we are the most regulated industry in the United States,” she said of blood donor organizations. “Imposing additional levels of needless regulation will only hurt the blood supply.”

Last month, the Red Cross even offered the chance to win Super Bowl tickets for those who donated in light of yet another emergency blood shortage, citing the lowest number of donors in 20 years. 

The American Red Cross is also specifically opposing HB 115, writing in an email that it “creates unnecessary barriers to accessing blood transfusions.”

“Blood is an essential, lifesaving medicine,” the organization stated. “Unlike other drugs, blood cannot be manufactured to meet demand.”

Two of the other bills related to vaccination this session are sponsored by Rep. Jeanette Ward (R-Casper), pictured here. Another two are sponsored by Rep. Jeremy Haroldson (R-Wheatland). (WyoFile/Ashton J. Hacke)

Other vaccine-related legislation

There are multiple bills this legislative session aimed at those who don’t trust vaccines and vaccine requirements. Below is a list of those WyoFile identified as of Wednesday.

  • House Bill 44 – Parental rights in minor child’s health care: This would do two things. First, it would repeal provisions allowing minors over the age of 12 to join a health department-approved tobacco cessation program. And second, it would repeal a provision where — during a public health emergency, when a parent or guardian can’t be found — a state health officer can vaccinate a child when it’s “reasonably needed to protect the public health or protect the minor child from disease, death, disability or suffering.”
  • House Bill 57 – Parental rights regarding vaccination: This bill would repeal the same state health officer vaccination section as House Bill 44, but doesn’t mention tobacco cessation programs.
  • House Bill 59 – Prohibiting mask, vaccine and testing discrimination: Under this bill, no one opening their doors and/or offering goods and services to the public can deny patrons access based on COVID‑19 vaccine or booster status, a face covering, or a refusal to take COVID‑19 tests. Likewise, no business or person can post notices that any of these three are required to access a location or receive goods and services. Violations could result in civil suits with penalties of up to $5,000.
  • House Bill 123 – Mandatory immunizations-repeal: Upon passage of this bill, child care facilities — including detention homes, correctional schools and non-government-involved nurseries, kindergartens, preschools, and boarding homes — would no longer be required to make sure all children in their care are vaccinated. Those required immunizations have never included COVID-19 vaccines, but currently include vaccines against measles, diphtheria, tetanus and many other diseases. 
  • House Bill 124 – Vaccination for smallpox-repeal: Lastly, this bill would repeal a bit of state statute that allows the Wyoming Department of Health to require vaccinations among state residents to prevent or stop the spread of smallpox when the agency deems it “proper and necessary.” Without the change proposed by HB 124, those who refuse vaccination would be fined between $10 and $100 and face up to 30 days in jail.

This article was originally published by WyoFile and is republished here with permission. WyoFile is an independent nonprofit news organization focused on Wyoming people, places and policy.