Covid-19 is expected to tear through the already fragile U.S. healthcare system, as waves of pneumonia and severe respiratory illness begin to flood the country’s emergency rooms and hospitals. But the outbreak is also imperiling a vital part of its medical infrastructure: the blood supply.
U.S. blood centres have been experiencing rapidly declining levels of available blood, following widespread cancellations of blood drives across the country in recent days and weeks.
Both the American Red Cross and the American Association of Blood Banks sounded the alarm on Tuesday, warning of severe blood shortages in the near future if the situation doesn’t change soon. On Wednesday, U.S. Surgeon General Jerome Adams similarly pleaded with Americans to donate blood if they could.
“As of March 16, more than 4,000 blood drives have been cancelled across the United States resulting in the loss of more than 130,000 donations,” Ruth Sylvester, director of regulatory services at America’s Blood Centres, the largest non-profit network of blood centres in the U.S., told Gizmodo. “Current inventories are down 30-40 per cent from the same time last year.”
Blood drives are routinely held at schools and businesses. As these places have gone dark, so too have the drives. But there’s also been a growing reluctance from would-be donors to venture out to a blood drive or centre, perhaps due to concerns about being around groups of people. Though the U.S. Centres for Disease Control and Prevention currently advises that everyone avoid gatherings of 50 people, Sylvester said that donating remains a safe activity (and for those curious, there’s no evidence that receiving transfusions can spread this or any coronavirus).
“Blood centre donation facilities are highly regulated environments intended to ensure the safety of donors and blood centre staff,” she said, adding that centres are now taking added precautions to keep distance between donors (6 feet apart is the recommended minimum). Donors will also be screened for any signs of illness, including fever.
The supply of blood, even in the best of times, is a precarious commodity. Different aspects of donated blood become unusable at different times, and the supply has to be constantly replenished and carefully managed to ensure it doesn’t go to waste. That’s why it’s usually a bad idea to donate en masse after a widely publicised tragedy—much of this extra blood will sadly be thrown out because there’s not enough demand for it.
Blood centres depend on regular donations. While this sharp, immediate decline in donations is bad enough, it’s nothing compared to what will happen if too many people continue to avoid donating during this pandemic, which some experts now believe could last for at least 18 months. According to Sylvester, hospitals are already cancelling elective surgeries that could require donated blood, and blood centres in Washington state—one of the first areas of the country hit hard by covid-19—have shipped in blood from elsewhere. But these belt-tightening moves can’t work forever.
“Such mitigation efforts only go so far, as cancer patients, those with blood disorders, and trauma patients depend on the altruism of volunteer blood donors daily,” said Sylvester, noting that only about 15 to 25 per cent of donated blood gets used for elective surgeries.
While staying indoors and away from others as much as we can is obviously important right now, blood donation remains an essential service we can do for each other during this crisis. There are various places and organisations to donate through in the U.S., including the American Red Cross and America’s Blood Centres.