April 2 (UPI) -- The U.S. Food and Drug Administration on Thursday lessened restrictions that prevent many gay and bisexual men from donating blood as the country faces blood shortages because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The agency made the changes at the urging of several Democratic lawmakers and gay rights activists who said earlier this week that the outbreak of the new coronavirus provided an opportunity to revisit policies made during the height of the HIV/AIDS crisis in the 1980s.
Earlier this month, the FDA had announced that blood may be in short supply in some areas across the country, as social distancing measures and cancelled drives as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic had "dramatically reduced" donations.
The new guidelines shorten the donation deferral period for sexually active gay and bisexual men from 12 months to three, so they will now have to abstain from same-sex sexual activity for 90 days before they can donate blood.
In a call with reporters, Surgeon General Jerome Adams said it's "critically important" that HIV-positive people don't give blood. Men who have sex with other men are at greater risk of acquiring HIV, however, Adams said the change in policy lines up with the time it takes to detect the virus in blood following infection.
"These changes are based on the best science that we have today regarding the time that it takes to test positive for HIV," he told reporters.
Deferral periods have also been reduced for other "at-risk" groups, including those who have traveled to areas with certain endemic diseases, those who use injection drugs and those who are sex workers. Donor requirements have also changed for people who have recently gotten tattoos or piercing.
Many of these restrictions had been in place since the mid-1980s, the height of the AIDS epidemic. At the time, the federal government imposed a lifetime ban on blood donations by any man who had ever had sex with another man.
The rule was designed to keep HIV out of the nation's blood supply at a time when far less was known about the disease. It was replaced in 2015 with the 12-month abstinence requirement.