An estimated 331.5 million Americans have it but fewer than 3% are willing to give some away — and that’s causing a problem for hospitals and patients.
The American Red Cross and the American Association of Blood Banks say a severe blood shortage is delaying some surgeries and medical procedures in parts of the country, including Virginia. The availability of blood can vary from region to region. Local hospitals say they have seen a decrease in supply but have enough for scheduled procedures and emergencies. Other hospitals in the state report shortages from mild to severe.
“The American Red Cross continues to experience a severe blood shortage that is negatively affecting blood product availability across the country,” said Jonathan McNamara, regional communications director for the American Red Cross’ Virginia region. “Blood and platelet donors are needed now to help ensure hospital shelves are stocked with blood products.”
Officials say patients are now scheduling surgeries and treatments they delayed during the pandemic when many hospitals, including the University of Virginia Medical Center, canceled non-emergency surgeries.
At the same time, the number of blood drives decreased during the pandemic and have not restarted as society has slowly reopened.
Managing Love, a nonprofit community organizing group, is sponsoring a blood drive Wednesday at the Hillsdale Conference Center, 550 Hillsdale Drive in Albemarle County. Appointments are necessary and can be made at 1-800-RED CROSS, redcrossblood.org or by visiting managinglove.org.
Nationally, the blood supply has been dangerously low.
“I’ve been on vacation for about a week, but when I left, it was the worst blood shortage I’ve seen in my career,” Dr. Claudia Cohn, chief medical officer for AABB, said Tuesday.
Cohn is also a professor at the University of Minnesota Medical School’s Department of Laboratory Medicine and Pathology.
“I’m based in the Midwest, and we’re usually the mass exporters of donated blood to the nation, and we were struggling,” Cohn said. “Our blood supplier had only one day’s supply on the shelf and they were used to having three days on the shelf. We were in better shape than some because some [hospitals] were in discussion with [executives] about whether to cancel surgeries.”
Locally, supplies are sufficient.
“While we are seeing a decrease in supply coming to us, we currently have ample blood products to cover our elective surgeries,” said Jennifer M. Downs, spokeswoman for Sentara Martha Jefferson Hospital, in Albemarle County. “At this time, we are also not concerned about any shortages in the near future.”
“The acute blood shortage at the beginning of the pandemic really galvanized our blood bank to plan for sustained and widespread shortages,” said Dr. James Gorham, medical director of Blood Bank and Transfusion Medicine Services at the UVa Health System.
“We developed an adaptable, tiered institutional response that allows us to better provide blood for patients who most need it, even when we find ourselves in the type of sustained shortage we are currently experiencing,” he said.
Gorham said the Health System has worked to mitigate shortages, including hiring a transfusion safety officer and creating a patient blood management program to reduce unneeded transfusions.
“We also work very closely with our blood supplier, the American Red Cross, on a daily basis to ensure that our inventory can meet our patients’ needs,” he said, “I think our institution is weathering the current shortage reasonably well. Of course, I always encourage people to go out there and donate.”
Regional and local blood shortages are not uncommon, especially during holidays and summer months. To offset those scattered shortages, blood is often shipped from one location to wherever it’s needed.
“Blood has to be constantly renewed. It has a short shelf life, and blood collected today is going to be available about a week from today, after all of the testing [for diseases.] By the time that blood is available, we’re going to need to have more come in. A donor’s appointment that is scheduled three weeks ahead of time means that we’ll have blood available in a month,” Cohn said.
The nation’s supply of blood for medical treatment relies on donors giving up their sanguine corpuscles for free. According to the World Health Organization, if organizations were to pay for blood, it could attract unsavory clientele in need of money and possibly carrying blood-borne diseases.
“An adequate and reliable supply of safe blood can be assured by a stable base of regular, voluntary, unpaid blood donors,” the World Health Assembly, which directs the WHO, restated in a 2017 resolution. “These donors are also the safest group of donors as the prevalence of blood-borne infections is lowest among this group. World Health Assembly urges all member states to develop national blood systems based on voluntary unpaid donations.”
WHO, however, has no issues with incentives such as gift cards, clothing or other items.
Area residents who donate blood now through July 31 will receive a $10 Amazon.com gift card by email and a chance to win free gas for a year, a $5,000 value. To schedule an appointment to give blood, go to redcrossblood.org or call 1-800-RED CROSS.
Wednesday’s blood drive at the Hillsdale Conference Center includes an additional incentive of a $20 gift card to Ecochic Boutique.
The AABB website has a blood drive locator at aabb.org/for-donors-patients/give-blood.
To help ease blood shortages during the pandemic, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration loosened restrictions to allow gay and bisexual men, those in relationships with them and those who have had sex with intravenous drug users to donate blood, providing they have not had sex with those partners for at least three months.
Previously, the abstinence period was a year.
Cohn said the pandemic may result in permanent societal changes that could require altering how blood is collected and distributed. She noted that some areas rely on mobile blood drives set up at schools or businesses, which proved problematic in the pandemic.
“Most of the blood is now collected at fixed sites after the pandemic, so if a locality relies on mobile drives, they’re going to feel [shortages] more than other areas of the country,” Cohn said.
“The blood industry is reevaluating how to do things and whether it needs to change based on a massive change in how society works,” she said. “That will take time to see what changes occur and how to respond. In the meantime, we need blood donors to go online, find their local blood supplier and make an appointment.”