How the National Blood Shortage Will Affect Nearly Everyone: What You Can Do

A man donates blood inside a center
Experts encourage anybody who is eligible to donate blood as soon as they can.
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  • The American Red Cross has declared a national blood emergency for the first time in its history.
  • Officials say the shortage is causing medical professionals to make tough choices on who receives donated blood.
  • They say the shortage has been caused by a decrease in donors during the COVID-19 pandemic as well as staffing issues at centers.
  • Anyone who is eligible is being asked to donate as soon as they can.

For the first time in its history, the American Red Cross has announced what it is calling a national blood crisis.

In a joint statement this week with America’s Blood Centers and the Association for the Advancement of Blood & Biotherapies, the organization said, “If the nation’s blood supply doesn’t stabilize soon, lifesaving blood may not be available for some patients when it is needed.”

In the past few weeks, the Red Cross, which supplies approximately 40 percent of the nation’s blood, has had to limit blood distributions to hospitals.

In 2021, Red Cross officials said, they saw new donor turnouts decline by more than one-third.

The crisis has forced doctors to make difficult choices about who is able to receive blood transfusions.

The shortage is largely the result of the COVID-19 pandemic, which has led to the closure of many schools and colleges, where many blood drives take place.

Other causes include the recent bitter cold weather and staffing limitations.

Shortage impacts all facets of life

Jessica Merrill, the director of biomedical communications for the American Red Cross, told Healthline that blood levels have been historically low for nearly 4 months now.

“Both the Delta and Omicron variants have wreaked havoc across the U.S., impacting all facets of life,” Merrill said.

“This has led to the first-ever Red Cross-declared national blood crisis, posing a concerning risk to patient care,” she said. “Every 2 seconds, someone in the U.S. needs a blood transfusion — an alarming reality that many do not realize until they are the one in need of lifesaving blood products.”

Merrill explained that a single car accident victim can require as many as 100 units of blood, “quickly depleting already low blood inventories and forcing doctors to make other patients wait for critical blood transfusions until more blood becomes available”.

Merrill said the Red Cross is working “around the clock” to meet the blood needs of hospitals and patients, but the organization can’t do it alone.

“Helping patients in need of lifesaving blood transfusions begins with generous volunteer blood donors, and it’s vital that those who are eligible come forward in the days and weeks ahead to help prevent further delays in vital medical care,” she said.

“There may not be an immediate appointment available or we may need to reschedule an appointment, but we still need you. We are grateful for your understanding as we work tirelessly to meet the needs of patients,” Merrill said.

People with cancer vulnerable

Dr. Sandip P. Patel, an associate professor of medicine and clinical trials director at the University of California, San Diego, said the blood shortage could have a potential impact on younger and older people alike.

“Whether it is a trauma patient or a patient undergoing surgery, the need for blood to help these patients is critical,” Patel told Healthline.

He noted there are few medical interventions as impactful as a blood transfusion.

“Particularly vulnerable are cancer patients, who often require blood transfusions during their treatment,” he said.

“Compounded with COVID-19-related staffing shortages, this unfortunately is yet another struggle that our cancer patients have been forced to endure recently,” Patel said.

Dr. Gwen Nichols, the chief medical officer at the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society, told Healthline that blood cancer patients have a profound need for blood.

“The current blood shortage could be critical for sustaining these patients, particularly those who are receiving treatment for acute leukemia, bone marrow transplantation, and even CAR T-cell immunotherapy,” Nichols said.

“Severe anemia may lead to cardiac complications, ischemia, and death. A lack of platelets can lead to life threatening bleeding,” she said.

“People should get out and donate blood if they are healthy enough to do so,” she said.

Patel strongly agreed.

“If you are able to donate blood, please consider donating at this time, it means the world to someone who is not only undergoing all the trials of COVID-19, but of cancer and other serious diseases as well,” he said.

You can find a blood drive near you on the American Red Cross website.

The Red Cross is also seeking volunteers to assist in blood drives, transportation to hospitals, and other services.

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