Health and Science

Blood donations needed during coronavirus pandemic

Key Points
  • Over 4,000 blood drives have been canceled in the U.S. because of the coronavirus, resulting in a loss of 130,000 donations, according to the American Association of Blood Banks.
  • Hospitals across the country are canceling elective surgeries and reducing the amount of blood they give patients to conserve their blood supply.
  • This situation is unprecedented, according to Dr. Claudia Cohn, director of the blood bank at the University of Minnesota Medical Center.
Andrea Goldstein speaks with medical assistant, Alex Kures, while donating blood alongside Karen Gielen (R) at Bloodworks Northwest on March 17, 2020 in Seattle, Washington.
Karen Ducey | Getty Images

Those who depend on regular transfusions are increasingly worried as over 4,000 blood drives were canceled in the U.S. because of the coronavirus, according to the American Association of Blood Banks.

This situation, which resulted in a loss of 130,000 donations, is unprecedented, according to Dr. Claudia Cohn, AABB's chief medical officer and director of the blood bank at the University of Minnesota Medical Center.

"I'm looking to delay or reduce blood usage with the knowledge that the supply is not being refilled at a robust rate, and nationwide we're seeing this," Cohn said.

Like clockwork, Tanya Baer's 9-year-old daughter Molly receives blood transfusions every three weeks as a treatment for thalassemia, an inherited blood disorder that requires regular transfusions.

"I'm scared of her getting sick, but that isn't even my biggest concern right now," Baer said. "My biggest concern: is she going to be able to get a regular blood transfusion to live?"

Baer has prepared Molly for the possibility that she may receive a reduced amount of blood in her next transfusion, which may cause her to not feel well. Molly has suffered before when she didn't receive the blood she needs. When her family adopted her as a two-year-old from China, Molly was anemic and fatigued from not undergoing regular transfusions, according to Baer.

The Cooley's Anemia Foundation advocates for individuals like Molly and people have been voicing their concerns to the organization regarding blood shortages, according to its national executive director Craig Butler.

"We've had patients that have reached out to us and have been told there's really only a five-day blood supply in their area or who have been told we won't be able to give you blood this week," Butler said.

There can be serious consequences when people with thalassemia don't receive regular blood transfusions, including heart and liver failure, as well as death, according to Butler. He said that there is no medical substitute for blood, and supplies need to be constantly replenished because blood has a short shelf life.

"It's really important in a situation like this to keep with the donations so that there'll be blood today, and blood tomorrow, and blood 10 weeks from now for everyone who needs it," Butler said.

The University of Minnesota Medical Center, like many hospitals across the country, has postponed elective surgeries, including those that treat slow-moving cancers, in order to extend its blood supply.

"Some of these are quite serious surgeries that are important, and we would not delay them unless we had to," Cohn said.

Her hospital is splitting in half the usual amount of blood given to patients, but if a patient is still symptomatic, they will receive more blood.

The American Red Cross still has blood donation centers open and has set up new ones at hospitals, said Dr. Pampee Young, the organization's chief medical officer. The American Red Cross website currently has an alert for a severe blood shortage because of the coronavirus.

American Red Cross blood donation centers have implemented new protocols to prevent transmission of the coronavirus, including enhanced disinfecting procedures and checking the temperatures of both staff and donors, according to Young. They also space out appointments and seat donors six feet apart in the waiting room in order to practice social distancing.

Young also said it's important to note that people can't transmit the coronavirus, or other respiratory illnesses such as a cold or the flu, by donating blood.

"Right now, all the science that we know says that this is not a virus that can be transmitted by transfusion," Young said.

AABB, which accredits the American Red Cross and most blood banks in the U.S., is trying to encourage a new round of donors. Once a person donates, they are unable to do so again for two months, according to Eduardo Nunes, vice president of quality, standards and accreditation at AABB.

"The donors who are ready to come out and give have already done that," Nunes said. "Now, we need to get messaging out to the next wave of donors, that second tier of people who are less habituated."

Those who are most likely to donate blood are people older than 60, according to AABB's Cohn. However, this group is most at risk in the coronavirus pandemic and may be more reluctant to leave home.

"We need to develop a habit in younger people," Cohn said. "We need to get them out to donate now and get them to continue to donate because this is an ongoing need. It's never going to go away."

Those interested in donating blood can schedule appointments through the American Red Cross' website or app. They should fill out a short questionnaire on the day of the appointment to ensure they are eligible. Donation also requires a short physical exam, including a temperature check.

Tanya Baer urges those who can donate blood to do so. Her parents just gave blood for the first time in honor of Molly.

"It's the one thing that you can do right now to change a life," Baer said.

Those practicing social distancing and staying at home can still leave to donate blood, according to U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Jerome Adams.

"Social distancing doesn't have to mean social disengagement," Adams said at a press conference Thursday.