by Melissa LaScaleia
The American Red Cross is experiencing a severe blood shortage and is in dire need of volunteers to donate blood.
“As a national organization with a footprint in each state, supplies are better in some areas than others,” says Ben Williamson, regional communications director for the American Red Cross, Palmetto SC region. “The states that are doing well can support those others that aren’t. But across the board, it’s a severe shortage which has compelled us to issue a nationwide appeal asking for volunteers to step up and give blood today, and to keep on giving.”
The blood shortage is attributed to a number of factors. Recently, there has been a spike in the demand for blood by hospitals— which, for the past 14-16 months, were deferring elective operations and non-emergency care because of the pandemic.
But as the Covid-19 landscape improves, those procedures have resumed; many more than are customary are being scheduled to compensate for the backlog, causing an increased need for blood.
“Additionally, as we look at the data over the past three months, hospitals are responding to an atypically high number of traumas as compared to 2019,” says Ben. “We’re seeing a 10% increase in trauma needs this year, which is a significant number. Over the past three months, nationwide as an organization, we distributed 75,000 more units of blood for trauma alone than we anticipated and expected to need. All of that leads to a really large hit in the national blood inventory.”
There’s also the impact of the attention being put on Covid-19 vaccines right now.
Approximately one-third of Americans have received the vaccine, and most of the public’s attention is focused on getting vaccinated rather than donating blood.
“Getting vaccinated is at the forefront of people’s minds,” Ben says. “But we’re trying hard to get the message out that 99% of the time, you can do both; if you’re vaccinated you can still donate.”
But Red Cross has still seen a dip in donations statistically as compared to previous years, and especially since the vaccine has become more readily available. And that, along with the surge in blood demand, has placed a strain on Red Cross resources and their ability to continue to serve our communities and the people who rely on them for life-saving blood.
“We’re assuming that the dip has to do with people’s confusion about their eligibility, or that they are so focused on getting vaccinated that they are postponing their blood donation,” Ben says. “But we want to reassure people that you are eligible even if you are between doses. If you have a fever, or aches and pains, we have to defer your donation for two weeks, but this has always been Red Cross standard procedure. So, if your first shot results in some body aches, then come back in two weeks and give.”
Usually, as an organization, Red Cross sees a tapering off of blood donations by mid-July, as more people travel and deviate from their customary routines, and they issue an appeal like this, at that time. This year’s appeal comes much earlier.
In SC, the Red Cross has supplied over 24,700 red blood cell units from March-May. That is an increase of more than 500 units in 2020. But still, Red Cross is only filling about 75% of available appointments in South Carolina, so there is plenty of opportunity for people to give at this time.
“We have really good relationships with the hospitals in South Carolina and across the country,” he adds. “We’re asking for them to slow the pace of elective surgeries so that we can catch up with our blood supply. This is a collective effort amongst hospitals and other blood organizations, to manage the situation.”
Red Cross wants to remind people that blood products have limited shelf lives and can’t be stored.
“Blood lasts from a couple of days to 42 days, depending on how it’s used,” he adds. “And volunteers are the only people who can help. We need people to commit to donating more than once— this isn’t a situation that can be fixed in a week; it could take several months. So, whether you know your blood type or if you don’t, please try to find the time to donate. Every type of blood is needed right now.”