Short on Blood: How the COVID-19 Pandemic Led to a Blood Shortage

By Gaelyn Lyons

Photo Credit: American Red Cross

In the US, someone needs blood every two seconds (American Red Cross, n.d.-a). To put in perspective how much blood is needed, someone involved in a car accident may need up to 100 units of blood, which is about 100 pints. Importantly, blood isn’t only given to people who have been in accidents. Blood is also needed for surgeries and patients with cancer (American Red Cross, 2020). About 40% of blood that is used in the US is provided by the American Red Cross (American Red Cross, n.d.-a). However, due to COVID, about 5,000 blood drives were cancelled, which led to about 170,000 less donations in March (Press and Journal, 2020).

The Red Cross is expecting more donation appointments to be cancelled, which would exasperate the shortage of blood. Normally, the Red Cross has enough blood supplies to support what is needed for five days. However, their current supply is less than enough for two days (Flavelle, 2020). The Red Cross isn’t the only blood bank that has been affected. According to Lancasteronline, the Central Pennsylvania Blood Bank, which provides blood to many hospitals in Central Pennsylvania, had less than half the blood supply they usually carry as of late September (STAFF, 2020).

Additionally, Pennsylvania isn’t the only state that has been hit by a blood shortage. Other states, such as Texas, have also experienced a shortage due to drive cancellations that were planned on being held at school, churches, and workplaces (Hennessey, 2020). Since quarantine caused non-essential surgeries and treatments to be placed on hold, patients in need of blood transfusions were unable to obtain donated blood. Once doctors’ offices began to reopen, however, there was a huge influx of patients needing blood and not enough donations to keep up with the need.

Inclement weather has also affected blood donations. Oklahoma experienced an ice storm in the early fall, which led to more cancellations of blood drives (Barron, 2020). The ice storm also increased the need for blood, as the inclement weather led to more car accidents.

I donated blood for the first time in July 2020. While I have always been afraid of needles and never thought I would ever become a blood donor, my mom encouraged me that this was a simple way for me to help others during this difficult time. My mom and I went to a blood drive that was hosted at our local VFW post. We were first met by a volunteer who took our temperatures and asked typical COVID screening questions. After signing in, a Red Cross nurse conducted a blood donation pre-screening. This screening is also available as a RapidPass pre-screening on the Red Cross app, which I completed before my visit. Since I had come prepared, they only had to measure my blood pressure, heart rate, and iron levels (the finger prick wasn’t so bad).

Me after I successfully I donated blood.

Once I was cleared to go, the nurses had me lay on the table and prepped me for the blood draw. As I reminded myself to breathe, the volunteer reassured me through the entire process by explaining each step. After a little poke and about ten minutes of squishing a stress ball, I completed filling my one-pint bag with blood. Then, before removing the needle, they filled one additional vial with blood to test for COVID-19 antibodies. Once the band aid was on and I had a little snack, my mom and I left, both successfully having donated blood.

Something cool about the Red Cross app is that once your blood is processed, they notify you of what your blood type is and when your blood is used, they send you an email about where your blood went. I was also notified that I tested negative for COVID-19 antibodies. My mom, on the other hand, tested positive which indicates she had COVID-19 at one point. Since not much is known about COVID-19, it’s pretty awesome that the Red Cross provides a way for us to know whether we have antibodies against the virus, which may encourage people with antibodies to provide their blood for scientists to examine further.

After giving blood, I was curious about what happened to my donation after I left the drive. Immediately after you donate your blood, it is sent to a processing center and a lab (American Red Cross, n.d.-b). The blood is then centrifuged to collect the different blood components, including red blood cells, platelets, and plasma. The white blood cells are then removed to minimize the chance of adverse effects for the recipient of the donation. At the same time, the lab tests for any infections that may be present in the blood. If the test comes back positive, the blood is discarded, and the donor is notified. After the donation is fully processed, the red blood cells are stored at 6°C for a maximum of 42 days. The red blood cells are then transferred to hospitals, where patients who are in need of blood transfusions are able to receive them.

As I mentioned from my experience, the Red Cross is taking precautions against COVID-19 when it comes to donations. Prior to allowing healthy donors and staff to enter the donation drive, temperatures are checked (American Red Cross, 2020). When in the drive, beds are spaced to follow social distancing and hand sanitizer is provided throughout the facility. Lastly, the surfaces and equipment are disinfected at an increased frequency.  If you or someone you know wants to donate blood or learn more about the Red Cross, you can visit the American Red Cross website or set up an appointment through their phone application. While donating blood may not seem like a big deal, it is honestly so fulfilling when you receive an email saying your blood was used to help a person in need.


References

American Red Cross. (n.d.-a). Blood Needs & Blood Supply. Retrieved November 2, 2020, from https://www.redcrossblood.org/donate-blood/how-to-donate/how-blood-donations-help/blood-needs-blood-supply.html

American Red Cross. (n.d.-b). What Happens to Donated Blood. Retrieved November 9, 2020, from https://www.redcrossblood.org/donate-blood/blood-donation-process/what-happens-to-donated-blood.html

American Red Cross. (2020, March 17). American Red Cross Faces Severe Blood Shortage As Coronavirus Outbreak Threatens Availability of Nation’s Supply. https://www.redcross.org/about-us/news-and-events/press-release/2020/american-red-cross-faces-severe-blood-shortage-as-coronavirus-outbreak-threatens-availability-of-nations-supply.html

Barron, R. R. (2020, October 31). Alert: Emergency blood shortage; donors critically needed following ice storm. The Ada News. https://www.theadanews.com/news/local_news/alert-emergency-blood-shortage-donors-critically-needed-following-ice-storm/article_b3ff5add-9838-5b3c-b648-8e1fd0ca7ef6.html

Flavelle, C. (2020, June 2). Red Cross Warns of a ‘Staggering’ Drop in Blood Supplies. The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/06/02/climate/blood-donations-hospitals-shortage.html

Hennessey, K. (2020, October 28). South Texas blood shortage grows as pandemic cancels school donation drives. San Antonio Current. https://www.sacurrent.com/the-daily/archives/2020/10/28/south-texas-blood-shortage-grows-as-pandemic-cancels-school-donation-drives

Press and Journal. (2020, March 20). Red Cross facing severe blood shortage because of canceled drives, ensures donation process is safe. Press & Journal. https://www.pressandjournal.com/stories/red-cross-facing-severe-blood-shortage-because-of-canceled-drives-ensures-donation-process-is-safe,87600

STAFF, L. (2020, September 25). Central PA Blood Bank’s supply is “historically low”; blood donors sought. LancasterOnline. https://lancasteronline.com/features/central-pa-blood-banks-supply-is-historically-low-blood-donors-sought/article_30bfa54a-ff0c-11ea-bdd7-b3f851482c08.html

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