The American Red Cross’s supply of blood is at dangerously low levels, the organization says, threatening to put hospital patients at risk and cause delays in vital medical treatments.
Blood scarcity has been a problem since the beginning of the pandemic, when collection drives at offices, schools and community centers were canceled as the virus spread around the country. In Maryland, winter weather is adding to the strain, causing dozens of blood drives to be canceled and some 130 pints to go uncollected in the state over the last three weeks alone, according to Red Cross spokeswoman Ashley Henyan.
“Right now, we are having to limit certain blood products to hospitals and across the country, as much as ¼ of hospital blood needs are not being met,” Henyan said. “Our inventory is truly at crisis levels ... Doctors are being forced to decide which patients receive blood transfusions and who must wait. It’s a dire situation.”
Henyan said the shortfalls have reached their worst point in more than a decade. New donor turnout in Maryland also is down more than 30% compared with previous years, she added, and some 58% of donation appointments in the National Capital and Greater Chesapeake Red Cross regions remained unfilled over the next month.
The need for blood is a constant one nationwide. Each pint donated can save up to three lives, according to the Red Cross, serving cancer patients, trauma victims and those with chronic illnesses who require regular transfusions. But only about 3% of eligible people donate blood yearly, according to the organization.
Those who can give blood and platelets are encouraged to find a donation center, especially people with type O blood, whose red blood cells can be given to people with any blood type.
Though blood donations have slowed considerably during the pandemic, the need for it has not lessened, said Dr. Baia Lasky, Red Cross medical director.
“Please, if you are eligible, make an appointment to give blood or platelets in the days and weeks ahead to ensure no patient is forced to wait for critical care,” Lasky said in a statement.
Hospital leaders and physicians in Maryland said while the situation has not reached a crisis pitch yet, they fear a statewide disaster or mass casualty event could push matters over the edge.
Sharon Boston, a spokeswoman for LifeBridge Health, which has hospitals in Baltimore and Baltimore and Carroll counties, said the medical system is “monitoring the situation closely,” but has not had to ration blood donations.
“We have very strict policies on how and when we administer blood to make sure not a single unit is wasted,” she said in an email.
Dr. Magali J. Fontaine, a professor in the University of Maryland School of Medicine’s pathology department, said the national blood supply usually stands at a one to two-week margin, but has dipped to less than a week’s supply.
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“It’s critically low, but it’s not zero,” said Fontaine, also the director of transfusion services at the University of Maryland Medical Center. “So we have blood on the shelf, but not the assurance that we will get resupplied in case of a disaster. If a disaster does happen, we may have difficulties then, just as you may have difficulties finding ventilators during COVID.”
Fontaine said the suspension of corporate drives and those on college campuses and community centers have added new pressures on the Red Cross to find donors. The organization also is dealing with staffing shortages of its own, Fontaine said, in tandem with the rise in job vacancies nationwide.
The staff shortages, Fontaine said, could be interfering with donor recruitment efforts. At the University of Maryland Medical Center in Baltimore, 24 blood drives were held in 2021, collecting 714 units. In 2020 and 2019, 17 and 22 blood drives were held, respectively, both capturing over 1,000 units each.
Fontaine said the Red Cross already is stepping up its efforts with a cellphone app, text message alerts and email reminders that remind previous donors when they can give again. But the organization needs to increase its new donor turnout, she said, and get more young people engaged.
Though the Red Cross is not able to offer cash incentives to donors, Fontaine said the organization can offer other prizes or giveaways to attract more people. For example, it’s partnering with the National Football League this month to raffle off tickets to Super Bowl LVI in Los Angeles.
Fontaine said interested donors should contact the Red Cross directly to avoid donating to a commercial site. People can make an appointment to give blood or platelets by using the Red Cross Blood Donor App, visiting RedCrossBlood.org or calling 1-800-RED CROSS (1-800-733-2767).
The organization also is looking for volunteers to help staff the sites. For opportunities, visit redcross.org/volunteertoday.