The blood supply in the United States is now at its lowest level since more than a decade.
Many of the country’s blood centers currently have only one one day supply of certain blood groups in stock. This is dangerous because blood transfusions are required for many surgeries. The blood is also used in the treatment of diseases such as sickle cell anemia and certain cancers – and is essential in helping those who suffer injuries from accidents or disasters.
In January 2022, the American Red Cross declared its first national blood crisis. A joint statement by the American Hospital Association, the American Medical Association and the American Nurses Association stated that “the severity and duration of this shortage could significantly compromise the ability of health care providers to meet the many urgent needs of our patients. and our communities”.
A steady blood supply is essential to the health of the nation. Blood is a valuable life product that cannot be made but must be donated. No substitute for blood exists.
Every day the United States needs approximately 29,000 units of red blood cells, 5,000 units of platelets and 6,500 units of plasmaaccording to American Red Cross. The average blood transfusion is three units, with a car accident victim requiring up to 100 units. A single donation can help more than one patient. Convalescent plasma can even be used as treatment for COVID-19a possibility our team researched.
I am a teacher and director from the Virtual Center for Supernetworks at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. My expertise is supply chainsincluding perishable product supply chains like blood. The COVID-19 pandemic, now entering its third year, has exacerbated the challenges associated with the country’s blood supply chains. Let me explain.
Two years of dramatic changes
At start of the pandemic in the winter of 2020, with growing fear and uncertainty, blood drives at many schools and other sites that traditionally hosted mobile blood drives closed. Across the country, elective surgeries have been canceled and procedures keep the blood in place.
Even before the pandemic, blood service organizations faced many challenges – including economic ones – and the blood supply chain in the United States was going through major changes. In pre-pandemic times, less than 10% of the US population would donate blood in any given year, although 38% were eligible. Moreover, blood is perishable, with red blood cells for 42 days and platelets only five daysregular replenishment is therefore essential.
But in the past two years, since the World Health Organization declared the COVID-19 pandemicunforeseen ripple effects have led to a huge demand for blood. Many people have delayed their medical treatment and can now be suffering from a more advanced disease. An augmentation of Gun violence, drug overdoses, road accidents – some due to driving under the influence due to pandemic-induced stress and challenges – and other trauma during the pandemic have also resulted in an increased demand for blood.
The American Red Cross reports that Since March 2020, blood donations are down 10%, with a 62% decrease in middle and high school blood drives, as many of these locations have moved away. This age group accounted for around a quarter of all donors in 2019, with a drop to around 10% of all donors during the pandemic.
More recently, donors who have tested positive with the highly transmissible omicron variant had to cancel appointments scheduled for blood donation. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has recently released guidelines with updated information for blood establishments regarding blood donations during the pandemic. Donating blood is inherently safe and, importantly, according to the FDA, there have been “no reported cases of transfusion-transmitted coronaviruses, including SARS-CoV-2, worldwide.”
The American Red Cross provides approximately 40% of blood and blood components needed in the United States. Donors can also donate blood at local blood centers or community hospitals, at Vital – formerly United Blood Services – or in member organizations of American Blood Centers. These constitute the largest network of non-profit community blood centers in North America and operate more than 600 blood donation collection sites.
Not just numbers
When it comes to blood shortages, people’s lives are at stake and the stories are very personal.
A pregnant young mother in Louisiana who suffered from COVID-19 and internal bleeding survived just long enough to see her newborn girl, thanks to blood donations. 11-year-old girl in West Virginia battling bone cancer received 18 blood transfusions. An 8-year-old girl in Texas has T-cell leukemia and depends on blood donations, but many blood drives in his area have been canceled. These are just a few examples.
And the ability to receive regular transfusions is a matter of life and death for people with certain diseases.
The many links involved in the blood supply
the the blood supply chain is incredibly complex. It consists of donation collection, testing, processing and distribution, with final transfusion to recipients in health care facilities. In addition to “getting blood from donor to recipient,” extensive supplies are needed for collection, testing, and transfusion.
Less well recognized, but of immense importance, is the work required in this supply chain, which, together with the donors, serves as the backbone. Throughout the pandemic, workers fell ill of COVID-19 and many have sadly lost their lives. Reduced labor availability, along with declining productivity, has affected supply chains from food at health care.
With COVID-19 infection rates surging across the landblood collection services also suffer from labor shortages, including blood collection specialists. The Red Cross reports that staff shortages in some parts of the country are some of the biggest hurdles nowwith higher wages being offered in this healthcare sector to attract workers.[Over 140,000 readers rely on The Conversation’s newsletters to understand the world. Sign up today.]
Relax restrictions – such as those on gay and bisexual men – could increase blood availability by about 2-4%. This is now being considered. As we approach the third year of the pandemic, the need for blood donations and support for this complex supply chain is even greater than at the start of the pandemic.