- The American Red Cross announced this week that it is facing its first-ever blood crisis amid a surge in cases of the Omicron variant of SARS-CoV-2.
- Due to restrictions from the COVID-19 pandemic, 68% of blood centers in the United States have less blood than needed to meet regular demand.
- Doctors are urging people to donate blood so that hospitals can keep up with demand and save lives.
As of January 14, 2022, 68% of blood centers in the U.S. have under 3 days of blood supply — the minimum necessary to meet regular demand.
Under normal circumstances, the Red Cross supplies 40% of the U.S.’s national blood supply that hospitals use. However, since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, the organization has seen a 10% decline in the number of people donating blood.
To solve this shortage, the Red Cross is raising awareness and urging individuals to donate blood:
“All types are needed now, especially types O positive and O negative, as well as platelet donations, to help reverse this national blood crisis,” wrote the American Red Cross in a press release.
“If there is not an immediate opportunity available to donate, donors are asked to make an appointment in the days and weeks ahead to ensure the Red Cross can replenish and maintain a sufficient blood supply,” they continued.
Blood cannot be manufactured, and there is no alternative treatment for blood transfusion. It is therefore crucial for people to donate blood to save lives.
To understand more about this issue, Medical News Today spoke with three experts whose practice is directly affected by the blood shortage alongside two who have been relatively unaffected.
“At our hospital, we are short by hundreds of blood units,” said Dr. Jennifer Andrews, M.Sc., associate professor of pathology, microbiology, and immunology, and associate professor of pediatrics at Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville, TN.
Dr. Andrews is also the medical director of the institution’s blood bank. She told Medical News Today, “Multiply that by thousands of hospitals across the U.S., and one quickly knows that we need thousands of blood units to make up for this shortage.”
“Right now, we need as much blood as possible,” Dr. Brian Wagers, associate chief medical officer and emergency medicine physician at the Riley Hospital for Children in Indianapolis, IN, told MNT:
“It is not unheard of for one patient to use as many as tens of units of blood, especially in a trauma patient. You can see that just for one patient, it may take many, many donors to meet that need. We need everyone who can donate as often as is safe for them to do so.”
One unit of blood is equal to 500 milliliters. The American Red Cross estimates that 29,000 units of red blood cells are needed daily in the U.S. While the average red blood cell transfusion is around three units, a car accident victim may require as many as 100 units of blood.
However, not everyone has been equally affected by the nationwide blood shortage. Bryan Schmitt, DO, medical director of Children’s Minnesota Lab and Pathology department, told Medical News Today:
“Thankfully, at Children’s Minnesota, we have not been impacted by the nationwide blood shortage. Our supplier has asked us to keep approximately 20% less blood on hand due to the nationwide shortage. We are also being more mindful of our product usage.”
He cautioned, however, that while normal operations at Children’s Minnesota have not been impacted, “healthcare systems cant sustain low blood supply forever.”
“During the initial phase of the pandemic in the U.S., the blood supply decreased, but our use decreased concurrently as elective and nonurgent surgeries were canceled across the country,” Suzanne Arinsburg, DO, director of the Blood Bank and Transfusion Services for Mount Sinai Hospital told MNT. “As these surgeries resumed, blood collection centers were unable to keep up with the demand.”
Dr. Wagers said that one of the major reasons blood collection centers have been unable to keep up with the demand is that “many of the ways in which people used to give blood, such as through community blood drives or pop-up sites at large gatherings, have been curtailed or canceled” due to continued COVID-19-related restrictions.
“Despite some loosening of these restrictions in various parts of the country, the repeated surges of COVID-19 disease related to the variants have continued to depress donations. Many hospitals and other organizations are sponsoring blood drives, but the return on these is also decreasing, meaning successive blood drives are not garnering the same amount of donations as they did in the past,” he continued.
Dr. Andrews added that healthcare workers falling sick and quarantines due to COVID-19 have also affected blood donations:
“As healthy blood donors and healthcare workers are either sick or quarantined due to [SARS-CoV-2] infection, they are unable to donate blood or process blood to send to hospitals. That means the ‘supply chain’ of blood stops so that hospitals don’t receive the blood we need to transfuse patients.”
“Blood needs to be delivered to hospitals regularly and consistently, just like groceries need to be delivered to your local grocery store. We end up with empty shelves in our blood bank, just like your neighborhood grocery store does if the supply chain breaks down. But blood is constantly needed to save lives, so this supply chain absolutely cannot wait to be remedied,” she added.
“We can’t transfuse patients who need blood transfusions. Patients have to wait. As a pediatric hematologist, I treat children with blood disorders, including sickle cell anemia, and I send them home if they are well enough only to hope we have more blood tomorrow,“ said Dr. Andrews.
“For patients already very sick in the hospital or having lifesaving surgeries like a liver transplant, they are either transfused less than the normal dose of blood or they too need to wait. This can be deadly for some of our sickest patients,” she added.
“Additionally, Vanderbilt University Medical Center is the only Level 1 trauma center in Nashville, so we always need to have extra blood on hand to save the lives of the next trauma victim who is bleeding to death. This could be any one of us, getting in a crash on the way to work or school, or having a baby when suddenly a life threatening hemorrhage occurs. If this hasn’t affected you or your loved ones yet, it could very soon, no matter where you live,” she explained.
Dr. Wagers added that requirements for different blood types further complicate the shortage:
“There are also certain blood types that are affected by the shortage in different ways. When you receive blood, you must also be appropriately matched so that your body will ‘accept’ that blood and not have an adverse reaction to it.”
“Hospitals also must take into account the likelihood of someone needing a blood transfusion and other interventions when planning for surgeries. If there is no blood of the proper type or other blood products available, the patient may not be able to receive their surgery in the originally scheduled timeframe,” he added.
All the experts interviewed said that one of the best ways for the public to help the ongoing blood shortage in the U.S. — and to save lives — is to donate blood.
“Please make an appointment to donate blood as soon as possible — go to redcrossblood.org and search for the nearest blood drive to your zip code in the U.S. And tell your friends and family to make an appointment today. Please continue to donate blood — we need a consistent, regular blood supply to keep saving lives.”
– Dr. Andrews
“And please do everything you can to prevent [SARS-CoV-2] infection, like getting vaccinated or boosted. The continuing pandemic is the ultimate root cause of this severe blood shortage,” she added.
Although the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center (UMPC) is not immediately affected by the shortage, a spokesperson from the university echoed this sentiment:
“UMPC has the blood supplies needed to care for our patients […] [However, we encourage] community members to donate lifesaving blood through their local blood drives.”
“Even though we are in a pandemic, kids are still sustaining life threatening injuries and need surgeries to treat very serious illnesses. Having an adequate blood supply on hand is a tremendously important part of making those efforts successful,” said Dr. Schmitt.
Others emphasized that there are other ways to get help to solve the shortage beyond donating blood too:
“It’s also important for people to magnify their efforts by hosting community blood drives in a regular cadence so that other people can have the opportunity to donate blood,” said Dr. Wagers.
“Having others share their personal stories of family members or other loved ones who have benefitted from receiving blood products is also helpful in motivating and inspiring others to give back and donate blood.”
Dr. Arinsburg added: “Consider volunteering at a local blood drive or hosting one. Information about how to volunteer or host a blood drive is available online for your local blood center.”
However, donating blood is still the best way to get personally involved. She concluded: “Blood donation is essential and safe. If you are eligible, please donate today.”