With fewer donors and a higher demand for blood than usual, the Red Cross is experiencing the worst blood shortage it has seen in more than a decade. The organization is looking for donors of all blood types to donate blood and platelets as soon as possible.
While the Red Cross aims to keep a five-day supply of key blood types on its shelves, it’s currently down to less than a one-day supply in some banks. It’s typical for blood donations to decrease around the holidays due to busy schedules, inclement weather and winter illnesses, but this is one of the worst shortages the organization has ever seen.
The low blood supply is being attributed to a combination of increased demand from hospitals and a substantial decrease in donations, both of which are related to the COVID-19 pandemic. The Red Cross distributed up to 250,000 more blood products in 2021 than in 2020, and saw a 34 percent decrease in new blood donors in the same time period, which is one of the largest year-to-year decreases in history.
“Demand has been incredibly high from our hospital partners as they try to play catch-up with some of those elective surgeries that were postponed due to COVID,” said Jonathan McNamara, Regional Communications Director for the American Red Cross. “We’ve also seen that people are coming into emergency rooms sicker than they were previously because of health care that was postponed due to the pandemic.”
McNamara explained that the pandemic has also presented challenges in collecting blood. Most notably, the donation partners they rely on most, such as college campuses and local businesses, are in hybrid or fully remote arrangements that impact blood-drive turnout. In many cases, these partners have had to cancel blood drives altogether.
This past fall, the Red Cross declared this blood shortage an emergency that would threaten essential medical care for patients across the country. Millions of patients rely on blood donations each year for a variety of reasons, including heart disease, car accidents, organ transplants and cancer treatments. In fact, the Red Cross estimates that every two seconds, someone in the United States needs blood. However, as hospital blood banks face shortages, doctors and surgeons are struggling to meet patients’ demand.
Dr. Meenakshi Bewtra, a Penn Medicine physician, explained that the blood shortage has resulted in a triage policy at her hospital’s blood bank. In this system, requests for blood in the operating room take priority over other requests. But even in these emergency situations, the doctor or surgeon must “make a case” to the blood bank to justify their use. In the most extreme cases, some hospitals have been forced to defer patients from major surgery.
“We are simultaneously trying to save [patients’] lives while just getting them blood products,” she said. “If you have a limit of available blood products or if you have to stop protocol and recheck with the blood bank and say ‘can I get another two units,’ that’s an uncomfortable situation for everybody in that operating room.”
How You Can Help
According to the Red Cross, one blood donation can save up to three lives. January is National Blood Donor Month, so consider donating blood and giving the gift of life. It may even be good for your health, too.
The Red Cross is accepting blood and platelet donations from all blood types. Most adults who weigh at least 110 pounds – and who have received a COVID-19 vaccine – are eligible to donate, but click here for more information about specific eligibility requirements. You can schedule an appointment using the Red Cross Blood Donor app, visiting their website or by calling 1-800-REDCROSS (1-800-733-2767).