Blood donors are getting harder and harder to find as Omicron spreads. Credit…Jon Cherry/Getty Images
The pandemic has created many supply chain bottlenecks in everyday life, but few are as critical as the United States’ dwindling blood banks. For the American Red Cross, which supplies about 40 percent of the country’s blood, and other nonprofit blood centers, the problem is mainly at the top of the chain: the dwindling number of healthy donors.
“This is the biggest challenge I’ve seen in my 30 years in the business,” Chris Hrouda, the president of biomedical services at the American Red Cross, said in an interview on Thursday.
Blood donations typically decline at this time of year when holiday parties, wintry weather, seasonal illness, travel, and school and college breaks lead to lower donor turnout. But Mr Hrouda said this month’s national supply had fallen to a level the Red Cross has not seen in 10 years.
“We just like to keep inventory for three days,” he said. “We struggle to last one day.” Blood takes up to three days to be tested and prepared for patients.
Remote work, the cancellation of blood collections, and the limits colleges and businesses have placed on the number of people allowed in public spaces have all resulted in lower donor turnout.
“We just didn’t get as much access this fall as we’d hoped,” said Mr. hrouda.
Adding to the problem, the Red Cross, like many employers, is struggling to attract and retain employees during the pandemic.
The critical shortage requires hospitals to allocate the precious resource more carefully. “We haven’t had to delay cases yet, but we are very aware of what our blood supply is,” says Dr. Jennifer Andrews, the medical director of the blood bank Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville. Blood donations are essential for surgery, the treatment of cancer, chronic diseases and traumatic injuries.
Vanderbilt, the only level one trauma center in its region, has recalibrated the transfusions they use to save patients — using fewer red blood cells — to make sure there’s enough for everyone. “We still think that’s safe, and we know it saves lives,” said Dr. Andrews.
Other hospitals have changed the treatment of some patients or canceled some of the patients’ surgeries, Red Cross officials said.
At Vanderbilt, “elective surgery postponed today is emergency surgery tomorrow,” said Dr. Andrews. The medical staff has been holding two to three blood collections a month, an increase from one before the pandemic, to replenish the center’s supplies, she said. But more is needed.
The country’s blood supply also faced a critical shortage after March 2020 as the first wave of the coronavirus spread across the country. Blood collections were canceled as businesses closed, and many people — especially older Americans, who have traditionally been the most frequent donors — were afraid to enter donation centers. At the time, the FDA eased some restrictions to help reverse the drastic drop in supply.
“We overcame the fear of any risk associated with a blood draw,” said Mr Hrouda, noting that supply had largely recovered until the Delta variant began to spread last summer. Blood bank directors hope supply will catch up with demand.
“Every unit of blood gives someone life,” said Dr. Andrews. “This holiday season you can give the gift of life.”
Do you want to donate blood? In most states, you must be at least 17 years old and in good health. You can sign up online with the American Red Cross, call 1-800-RED-CROSS, or find a donation site through America’s Blood Centers. You can also call your local hospital to see if blood donations are accepted there.