A summer slump in donations, made worse by climate disasters, has led to a national shortage at the organization, which distributes 40 percent of the blood supply.
The Red Cross said “back-to-back” months of climate disasters in parts of the country have made it harder for people to get to donation centers and blood drives even as weather events like flooding and hurricanes can put greater demand on the blood supply. An unusually busy August travel season also has hampered donations.
Weather can also affect the organization’s ability to distribute blood. The Red Cross said “more than 700 units of blood and platelets” were left uncollected when Hurricane Idalia hit Florida a few weeks ago.
Officials at other blood centers say they are also feeling the pinch of fewer donations, but said they haven’t reached a national crisis point. Post-pandemic behavioral shifts related to work and school have made it more difficult to collect blood. As more people work from home, for instance, office-based corporate blood drives have declined. School staffing shortages have meant fewer blood donation programs at educational sites.
The Red Cross says the demand from hospitals is “outpacing the number of blood donations coming in.” The nonprofit needs to collect about 12,500 blood donations every day to meet the needs of around 2,500 hospitals and transfusion centers nationwide.
“We have the need everywhere,” said Baia Lasky, a medical director for the American Red Cross. “It’s usually a challenging time of year for us, but we’ve also seen a drop in our donor base.”
The last time the Red Cross declared a national shortage was in January 2022 — the worst such crisis in a decade. The current shortage isn’t as severe, but there are hospitals at “critical levels,” Lasky said.
While blood centers are accustomed to managing fluctuations in the blood supply, the current conditions are “not a comfortable situation to be in,” said Kate Fry, the chief executive of America’s Blood Centers, which represents independent blood centers that provide 60 percent of the nation’s supply.
“All it would take” is one major traumatic event and the blood supply would be depleted in many parts of the country, Fry said. A single trauma patient can require 100 units of blood or more, Fry said.
“We’re nowhere near a solid place,” she said.
Blood centers ‘on the edge’ of an emergency
New York Blood Center Enterprises, which operates 53 centers in 13 states, is “bobbing at the water line,” trying to get enough donations every month, said Andrea Cefarelli, the senior vice president of corporate communications for the nonprofit. The organization, which is based in New York City, collected approximately 62,800 donations in August, a 4.3 percent drop from around 65,600 at the same time last year. At the same time, demand from hospitals is growing, Cefarelli said.
“We sort of live right on the edge of a blood emergency and barely meeting the needs of our hospitals,” she said. “The need for blood is growing at a time when there are fewer youth donors, fewer first-time donors. So, it’s been a struggle.”
Before the pandemic, donations from teenagers and college students accounted for 25 percent of all the blood donated to New York Blood Center, Cefarelli said. Those donations, largely through high school and university blood drives, have dropped in half. Blood drives “are not a priority” for high schools that are short-staffed because of resignations and retirements in recent years, she said.
And now that it’s more common for people to work from home, corporate blood drives aren’t bringing in the same number of donors they once did, Cefarelli said.
“We are collecting blood,” she said. But “it’s not enough.”
Inova Health System, which operates one of the largest health-system-operated blood donor centers in the United States, is experiencing a “slight” shortage right now, said Sean McCleary, the vice president of professional services for the hospital system in Virginia. McCleary said he hopes the drop in donations is just because of people traveling over summer. But, the problem could “quickly escalate.”
“We have to work harder now than we’ve probably ever had to work to get the donations that we receive on a daily basis,” he said.
Many eligible people don’t donate blood
The Red Cross is urging “donors of all blood types” to give blood, but there is an “emergency need” for type O blood and platelets, the tiny cell fragments that form clots and stop bleeding. While there are varying criteria for who is eligible to donate blood, whole blood donors typically can donate up to six times a year. Platelet donors can give up to 24 times a year.
At a Red Cross donation center in Horsham, Pa., Jeff Frazier, 65, a “semi-retired” real estate agent, sits in a black recliner reserved for those donating platelets. It can be a more time-consuming process than typical blood donations, usually taking two to two-and-a-half hours. For Frazier, who only uses one arm at a time, the process takes around three hours.
Towards the front of the clinic in Horsham, there’s a wall of plaques for every person who has donated more than 18 times a year. Frazier’s name is on the wall multiple times.
Frazier has been donating platelets for two decades now. His dad, who was a pastor, once told Frazier that the most important part of someone’s life is in the last few days. Frazier said he donates so people can have those two or three more days to spend time with their loved ones.
“Those last couple of days, family comes in, maybe they mend broken fences,” Frazier said. “Those are the people I give for; so they can have those last few days to get their affairs in order.”