As many New Yorkers receive regular alerts that blood centers are running low and there is a dire need for any COVID-19 survivors to donate their plasma, one New Yorker in particular said he was barred from donating.
Lukus Estok, who recovered from the coronavirus earlier this month, said several tests determined he is the perfect candidate for convalescent plasma donation. Estok is also a gay man, and said when he arrived at the New York Blood Center location on the Upper East Side earlier this month, he was turned away,
“I made it through this last month of hell,” Estok told InsideEdition. “All I want to do is help. But that wasn’t an option for me.”
Estok had become sick in early March and for more than three weeks, he battled a high fever, dizziness, dry cough, shortness of breath and chest pains. He was hospitalized briefly when he was told he tested positive for the coronavirus. “I have never been that sick in my life,” he said.
As he began recovering, Estok learned about convalescent plasma, a new treatment they were trying at Mount Sinai Hospital. “It felt important to me,” he explained. “I just wanted to be able to help in anyway.”
He told InsideEdition.com he went to Mount Sinai Hospital, recalling how they had pride flags posted around the check-in desk. After undergoing a blood test, a coronavirus test and questioning about his bout with COVID-19, he was deemed a prime candidate.
Estok was then asked a series of standard donor screening questions, including family history and medications he was taking. “I was waiting for this question,” Estok said, “The last question was whether or not I'd had sexual contact in the last three months with another man. I answered no. And they told me with that, that I had passed the screening.”
Estok was referred to the New York Blood Center and the following day, he received a call from that organization and was asked the same series of questions.
“I again waited for the question that was of most interest to me. It was the last question again,” Estok said. “So I answered no again, and I was given an appointment. At that point, I felt like I was clear. I was labeled a prime candidate. I had an appointment, and I was excited. I was nervous.”
When he arrived at the New York Blood Center location the following day, he was asked for his ID and whether he had donated blood before. “I said, ‘Not since high school, not since I was 18. I haven't really been able to,’” he recalled.
Estok was then asked why he hasn’t been able to donate. “I let my guard down a bit,” he said. “I just volunteered, ‘I’m a gay man.’ At that moment, the tone of the conversation shifted entirely.
"I could see the expression of the person's eyes even though they had a face mask on, change," he continued. "And immediately, the response was, ‘You won't be donating today.’”
Policies dating back to 1983 have restricted gay and bisexual men, or specifically, men who have sex with men, from donating blood. The policies began as an effort to curb the spread of HIV/AIDS, according to Gay Men’s Health Crisis (GMHC), though included men who practice safe sex as well as HIV-negative men.
But technology has since changed to be able to test donor blood for HIV, and the policies as a result have since relaxed. Many blood organizations instead have since stated that men who haven’t had sex with men in the last 12 months would be allowed to donate.
Still, advocates say there is much more work to be done in that area where equality is concerned. "This policy fails to maximize blood safety or to reduce unnecessary discrimination and stigma against gay and bisexual men," the GMHC said in statement in 2011. "The policy does not consider the potential donor's HIV status, frequency or risk of sexual activity, or participation in a monogamous relationship."
Earlier this month, in response to a blood shortage during the coronavirus, the FDA revised those regulations again, stating that any man who has not had sex with men in the past three months, instead of 12 months, would be allowed to donate.
Estok attempted to cite the recent changes to the technician he was working with, and noted he had passed the earlier screenings questions that asked him about his sexual and medical history.
“I was cut off. The response was, ‘I don't know what you think you know, but you will not be donating here today,’” Estok said. “I just felt a rush of emotions. I felt upset. I felt embarrassed. I felt angry. I felt blood rushing in my face. I was embarrassed.”
He said the technicians began talking among themselves for a few minutes out of earshot before referring him to speak with a supervisor.
InsideEdition.com reached out to the New York Blood Center for comment. Officials there said what Estok said he was told: while the FDA had ordered the changes, it would take time for individual blood banks to implement the new policies. Computers had to be updated, protocols would have to be revised and staff would have to be retrained before they could begin practicing the new policy.
In a statement to InsideEdition.com, the New York Blood Center said, “New York Blood Center is pleased with this new guidance. We have been pushing the FDA to make these scientifically-based changes for decades, and we will continue to advocate for further changes to this policy as scientific data permits. This will allow us to grow our pool of potential donors at a critical time and will help ensure a robust blood supply for our communities in the weeks and months ahead. We're working to implement the changes as quickly as possible.”
But for Estok, that wasn’t enough.
“It doesn’t seem like an acceptable response to me. I made it through this last month of hell, more or less. It sucked coming back, but I'm so grateful to be back. And all I want to do is help,” Estok said. “But that wasn't an option for me. I ultimately left without being able to donate.”
Estok said he feels their decision didn’t consider that he is a healthy and prime donor, and instead was one based in stigma.
“I just want to be treated like anyone else who's heterosexual,” he said. “It's frustrating living in New York City, being an openly gay man, and feeling safe. Right? And not feeling like that guard that you have to put up in so many parts of your life and in so many parts of this world. You want to be able to put that guard down, and that's what I did. I hate to say that I regret it, but I do.”
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo said Thursday there are more than 250,000 confirmed coronavirus cases and 15,000 deaths related to the virus in New York State, but a new study showed there could be as many as 2.6 million cases statewide, and 1.7 million in New York City alone.
While convalescent plasma donation for coronavirus treatment is still in its early stages, many doctors believe it will be an important tool to saving lives.