COVID-19 has not been detected in breast milk, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. However, it's unknown whether mothers with the virus can transmit it to children via breast milk.
COVID-19 is thought to be spread through respiratory droplets, but the CDC advised precautions because there are still many unanswered questions regarding the virus. The CDC published recommendations for nursing and expecting women on their website.
The Milk Bank is a non-profit that collects and distributes donated breast milk to hospitals and families in need. Donated breast milk is often used in hospital NICUs when the milk of a birth mother is compromised or not available, according to The Milk Bank.
"The breast milk from the bank is available for [NICU babies] instead of the formula because formula is harder for their system to digest," added Lauren Higdon, a Lexington doula and director of Centered Lexington.
Centered Lexington is one of five milk depots in Kentucky where women can drop off donations for The Milk Bank. The depots ship donations to the non-profit's main office in Indiana on a monthly basis.
However, before a woman can deliver a donation, they must pass a multi-step screening process. Potential donors go through verbal and written screenings to make sure they're in good health and free of any diseases that could be transmitted through their milk. They are required to provide a medical release statement and also undergo a blood test.
"It's essentially the same blood test we would do if you were going to donate blood," explained Sarah Long, The Milk Bank's Director of Clinical Operations.
The process can take anywhere between one to four weeks.
"For most babies, most breast milk is totally safe, but for the fragile babies we serve, that's the reason we ask all the in-depth questions," said Long.
The Milk Bank donor screening process checks boxes set in stone by the CDC, FDA and Human Milk Banking Association of North America (HMBANA).
"Our practices have safeguarded against genetically similar viruses [to COVID-19] in the past such as SARS or MERS," said Freedom Kolb, The Milk Bank's Executive Director. "Our screening process is also designed to protect against ebola and some other health threats."
"It really shows us that we are really well positioned in the event of a health crisis like coronavirus," added Long.
Additional layers of safety are taken before donated breast milk reaches recipients. The donated milk is pasteurized and samples are sent to a third-party lab to check for bacteriological growth.
Kolb and Long told LEX 18 their concerns don't lie in the quality and safety of the milk they distribute, but rather in the impact the spread of COVID-19 might have on how they meet demand. So, they're calling for more people to donate breast milk if they are able to.
"As more hospitals are becoming baby-friendly and the public becomes aware of the short-term and long-term benefits of breast milk, we are already seeing an increase in demand across the board," explained Kolb. "Combine that with the threat of a respiratory infection and greater calls on the medical community to serve everyone, we just want to make sure our supply is as stable and consistent as possible so we can respond to any demands that come our way."
"[Breast milk is] really safe and I would highly recommend that if a mother is in need to get in touch with The Milk Bank," said Higdon. "Plus, breast milk boosts immunity."
Donations approved by The Milk Bank can be directly shipped to the non-profit or taken to any of five milk depots in Kentucky. Those are located in Lexington, Bowling Green, Mayfield, Pikeville, and Edgewood.
For more information on becoming a donor, visit themilkbank.org.