By Noah Rothstein
As the COVID-19 pandemic ends, more Americans seeking medical care find themselves facing a national blood shortage.
In June, the blood supply dropped to “red” level, indicating dangerously low supply at blood centers nationwide, according to the AABB Interorganizational Task Force on Domestic Disasters and Acts of Terrorism.
Several factors contributed to the shortage. Blood donations typically drop in the summer months as people go on vacation and schools, which hold blood drives, are closed. But the pandemic has only added to the problem. Fewer people are coming out to blood drives in general, and many blood donation centers are understaffed.
“Over the last three months, the Red Cross has distributed about 75,000 blood products more than expected to meet hospital needs, significantly decreasing our national blood supply,” said Jessa Merrill, director of biomedical communications at the Red Cross. “In recent weeks, the Red Cross has operated with less than a half a day supply of Type O blood, which is the most-needed blood group by hospitals.”
Periodic, localized blood shortages are not uncommon, but this shortage is “unprecedented in its scope,” said Dr. Claudia Cohn, chief medical officer for the American Association of Blood Banks.
The COVID-19 pandemic and a recent rise in violent crime have put additional pressure on an already strained blood supply. Compared to 2019, the demand for blood has climbed by 10% in hospitals with trauma centers and by more than five times in other facilities that provide transfusions, according to the Red Cross.
“The types of traumas that require transfusions are persistently remaining up,” said Dr. Babak Sarani, director of trauma and acute care surgery and co-medical director of critical care at the George Washington University Hospital.
In the Washington, D.C., metropolitan area, the incidence of gunshot wounds is “significantly higher than it was prior to COVID,” said Dr. Sarani.
The blood shortage has prompted a discussion on whether to allow gay and bisexual men to donate blood. Doing so could alleviate the stress hospitals are currently experiencing.
On April 2, 2020, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) announced that it was updating its policy regarding blood donations from men who have sex with men (MSM), reducing the deferral period from twelve months to three months. However, organizations like the Human Rights Campaign believe the deferral period is still too long, and Democratic lawmakers argue that the policy is outdated and discriminatory.
Due to the blood shortage, doctors are forced to reevaluate whether patients deserve blood products. Many hospitals may be forced to re-triage patients to ensure an adequate supply of blood products for patients in need.
If the shortage continues, elective surgeries may be canceled. Cancer patients requiring chemotherapy, and the blood transfusions that chemotherapy necessitates, may need to reschedule their life-saving treatments.
“Blood is a critical, life-saving therapy for millions of patients throughout the world — and the only source of blood is the generosity of donors,” said Dr. Cohn. “We have a long summer ahead of us and making sure the blood supply is adequate beyond this week or next is [a] challenge.”