The United States is facing an emergency blood shortage, according to the American Red Cross, and there is growing concern that a combination of severe winter weather and seasonal respiratory illnesses could lead more people to cancel their donations and that the shortage may delay medical procedures.
The number of people volunteering to donate blood is at the lowest level in 20 years, and over the past two decades, the number who donate through the Red Cross has fallen about 40%, the nonprofit announced Sunday.
Now, there does not appear to be enough donated blood to meet demand among hospitals and patients in need. Data from the national organization America's Blood Centers indicates that, as of Monday, at least 17 community blood centers have a one-day supply or less, "critically" low supply that suggests they need donations as soon as possible.
"One of the most distressing situations for a doctor is to have a hospital full of patients and an empty refrigerator without any blood products," Dr. Pampee Young, chief medical officer of the Red Cross, the nation's largest blood supplier, said in the announcement. "A person needs lifesaving blood every two seconds in our country - and its availability can be the difference between life and death, however, blood is only available thanks to the generosity of those who roll up a sleeve to donate."
In the week between Christmas and New Year's Day, there was a donation shortfall of nearly 7,000 units, according to the Red Cross.
"Now, getting out of the holidays and looking at what hospital demand is starting to look like, we can see that we need about 8,000 additional donations every week in January in order to shore up supply," Dr. Eric Gehrie, executive physician director for the Red Cross, said Monday.
One unit of blood, equivalent to about a pint, is typically collected during a donation, and experts estimate that a single car accident victim can require as many as 100 units of blood.
"We hear all the time about really dramatic things that happen in hospitals - of women after childbirth who have substantial unexpected bleeding and who might require dozens or even hundreds of units of blood to survive, and then they do survive because the blood is available. Same thing for people who are in accidents or who require really complicated surgery that's associated with a lot of blood loss," Gehrie said. "When that blood isn't available, it really diminishes the ability to offer that to somebody who's in need."
The American Red Cross announced a national shortage of blood and called for more donations in September, and blood inventory rebounded afterward.
However, the supply has fallen yet again "to critically low levels across the country," according to the Red Cross, and in recent weeks, the organization has had to limit distributions of type O blood products - among the most transfused blood types - to hospitals.
"When the Red Cross is trying to determine how much blood is needed to supply hospitals, it takes into account seasonal changes - and there certainly are a lot of seasonal changes that occur around the holidays," Gehrie said. "One thing that is very different this time around is that hospital demand, even in the lower-utilization holiday period, has been greater than it has been in previous years. And the lower donations, as a result of the seasonal figure, combined with the unexpectedly higher demand from hospitals, is what's really contributing to the emergency that we have presently."
The Red Cross is now calling on health care professionals and members of the public to donate blood to help the nation's supply bounce back.
The two types of blood products that are most frequently in need are platelets and red blood cells, according to Gehrie.
"The need for platelets is constant because they only last for five days after donation. As a result of that, it's not really possible to build up a big inventory to draw from in the future because that inventory would just expire in a few days, and so the only thing that sustains the platelet supply are dedicated donors," he said. "With red blood cells, the situation is a little bit different. Red blood cells can last for up to 42 days after being collected."
In August, the Red Cross announced that more gay men were eligible to give blood with the use of a more inclusive risk-based individual assessment to determine whether someone is eligible to give blood, regardless of sexual orientation, sex or gender. Historically, gay and bisexual men were banned from donating.
Volunteers can make appointments to give blood or platelets at RedCrossBlood.org or by calling 1-800-RED-CROSS. This month, the Red Cross and the National Football League are partnering to offer volunteers a chance to win a trip for two to Super Bowl LVII in Las Vegas. Donors will be automatically entered for the chance to win.
Volunteers can also find blood donation centers in their area using the Blood Donation Site Locator on the Association for the Advancement of Blood & Biotherapies' website.
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