Back in June, the Red Cross began offering free COVID-19 antibody tests to anyone who donates blood. The test indicates whether a person previously was exposed to the novel coronavirus and might have immunity or some resistance to reinfection.

The appeal, we hope, is that the antibody-possessing donor is at low risk of spreading the disease. Perhaps some want to take advantage of the outrageously low airfare, and with round-trip tickets to Honolulu starting at $450, who can really blame them?

Although I see the ingenuity and public service in providing free antibody tests, I wonder if the Red Cross is inadvertently opening itself up to other problems.


The transactional nature of performing a virtuous deed feels very American. Certainly, incentives are not novel. Who doesn’t love those all-you-can-eat doughnut spreads, adjacent to the refrigerator packed with Mott’s juice boxes? A sugar-laden buffet for lounging in a chair.

Then, there is the satisfaction of pinning a “Be nice to me, I gave blood today!” sticker on one’s chest. Those who donated in July had their names entered into a sweepstakes to win replicas of Wonder Woman’s Golden Lasso and a pair of gauntlets.

While I believe in the integrity of humanity, a global pandemic is scary and exhausting. If the past four months have taught us anything, it’s that people behave awfully strangely when a cough or sneeze could spell their doom.

I’m thinking of the queues that formed outside of Sam’s Club, kicking off morning rounds of toilet paper hoarding. Or, the people who shouted at grocery checkout clerks for touching their Campbell’s soup cans or zucchinis too much. I mused whether people might be tempted to skirt the blood donor rules when the goodies are so enticing.

I, too, desperately wanted an antibody test. At the Dubuque blood donation center, I mulled over my answers to the screening survey, pondering if a misstep would dash my chances.

Some of the questions are self-evident. Have you recently injected drugs or taken money for sex? Sure, I see the wisdom in deferring their donation. But who wouldn’t feel tempted to blur the dates a little after getting a shingles vaccine or traveling within the past three years to a malaria-infested shantytown?

I was honest, but still, the crooked thought was there.

The lady who took my health history and drew my blood — let’s call her Stephanie — escorted me to a faux leather reclining chair, where I was seated. I leaned back to take in the room. Through a wall of glass windows, I looked outside onto a diorama of chittering wildlife that pranced across a grassy lawn.

Several brown finches fluttered about a bird feeder, while a groundhog lazily meandered. The staff have named the squirrels who make their home around an elm tree that towers over the property. The tawny rodent who they call, I think, Pudgy or Tubby gnawed on a corncob, golden kernels falling through his outstretched paws.

“We leave food out for them,” Stephanie said through her face mask.

After sticking my vein with a needle, she handed me a foam block to periodically squeeze. Since the Red Cross started offering the tests, Stephanie said they have been swamped with donors.

I told her I was excited. Not to say I haven’t been social distancing, but if I tested positive for antibodies, maybe I could visit my parents, who I haven’t seen since Thanksgiving.

“You never really know if you’ll be safe anymore,” Stephanie said, glumly. She heard on the news that a man was infected with the coronavirus a second time, and it took him weeks to recover.

“I feel a little bit safer in Dubuque, though,” I said.

“Oh, things are really picking up here,” she said.

Across the room, four older gentlemen draped in thermal hospital blankets watched television. They must have been better people than I — probably volunteering for the more time-intensive platelet donation, which takes about two hours — because they were tethered to tubes when I took my leave.

Stephanie directed me to the Devil cremes and oatmeal raisin cookies near the exit.

The other week I logged into the Red Cross’ website to see if I had the coveted antibodies. Sorry, you’re negative, it said.

“I don’t know whether to be grateful or disappointed,” I told my friend, Jennifer.

“You could have no feelings,” she said, “and I think that’s OK.”