Hospitals and blood centers are renewing their alarm over a shortage of blood donations amid the coronavirus pandemic in what they said could prove another stumbling block in getting hospitals back to the business of elective surgeries, not to mention the ongoing needs of COVID-19 and trauma patients.
“This is a very challenging time for us and hospitals are worried,” said Paul Sullivan, Senior Vice President of the Red Cross Blood Services. “We have had to go on emergency appeal which means letting people know just how tight our inventory is.”
In an effort to bring in donors, the Red Cross announced Monday a new, free initiative to test all blood, platelet and plasma donations for coronavirus antibodies, which would indicate if the donor has previously been exposed to the virus.
When the nation virtually shut down this spring in hopes of stemming the spread of the coronavirus, blood donation drives were canceled like everything else. Since mid-March, the American Red Cross, which provides about 40% of the nation’s blood and blood components to health care facilities, said it has had 2,700 drives canceled and 86,000 fewer donations.
“The warning was loud and clear and issued early in the pandemic,” said Dr. Gustaaf de Ridder, System Director of Transfusion Services at Geisinger Health System in Pennsylvania.
There was already an immediate need for blood as some severe COVID-19 patients required transfusions, but now hospitals say the lack has revealed another critical vulnerability: the ability of hospitals to restart much-needed elective surgeries and help those with essential non-COVID surgeries like organ transplants or those who suffer emergency traumas.
For weeks some hospitals small and large have said that their inability to do elective surgeries, which represent a substantial portion of a health care facility's income, has put them in dire financial straits.
“We’re having to make special considerations for our ability to do elective surgeries,” said Dr. Govind Rangrass, an anesthesiologist at the University of Chicago Medicine. “Sometimes we will have to do massive transfusions for the trauma patients and then we won’t have enough blood supply for electives.”
Hospitals in Arizona, a state that's seeing a recent rise in coronavirus cases, have said they too are experiencing shortages of blood and are "carefully evaluating elective surgeries to ensure they have enough blood supply in advance," according to Sandy Severson, Vice President of Care Improvement at the Arizona Hospital and Healthcare Association.
But Severson noted the local community has responded and they have seen more blood drives within organizations, and the Arizona Cardinals pro baseball team has gotten in on the act.
Dr. Jerry Gottschall, Senior Medical Director of Versiti Blood Centers, said there's another obstacle to overcome: the public's fear of giving blood in the middle of a pandemic.
“We are seeing a lot less donors while usage has gone back up in the hospitals,” said Gottschall. “We need more people to donate blood, hospitals are in dire need.”
Versiti, a healthcare organization that supplies blood in Wisconsin, Indiana and Michigan provides about 700,000 units of red blood cells, platelets and plasma to 270 hospitals annually. But with the closure of their donation sites for more than two months, the company is urging hospitals to reduce elective procedures through August.
To keep people safe, the Red Cross is enforcing social distancing guidelines and putting precautions in place like requiring face masks, checking temperatures of staff and donors, and routinely disinfecting surfaces, equipment and donor touched areas.
“We understand people are concerned about going out, but our blood drives are following the highest standards of social distancing and infection control prevention,” said Sullivan. “It is completely safe to donate blood.”
“Like any other business, we need to restore faith in the community that it’s safe and you won’t get COVID-19,” said Dr. Sunny Jha, an anesthesiologist at the University of Southern California.
In the meantime, de Ridder indicated that hospitals could be getting in front of the issue. He said, “We look at our demand and supply critically every day. This is a delicate balance between opening up elective surgeries and having enough blood.”
“We need to make sure each transfusion is needed and appropriate," de Ridder said.
The call for donations is a timely one for another reason -- surges in coronavirus cases in some states coinciding with a potential summer spike in traumas that tend to come with warmer weather.
Dr. Roshan Patel, Director of Idaho Pathology Laboratory, said he is also seeing an increase in cases of coronavirus and is concerned about the blood supply.
“We are entering the summer season where we typically see increased trauma,” said Patel. “More people will be on the road as opposed to using plane travel and will increase the possibility of accidents. I am concerned about blood shortages because it can mean the difference between a bad outcome or a good one.”
Dr. Hanni Stoklosa, an emergency physician at Brigham and Women's Hospital, put it in starker terms.
"As an emergency physician, every day I rely on blood to keep my patients alive," Stoklosa said. "It is vital that folks donate blood. This is a matter of life and death."
Jay Bhatt, a practicing internist and Aspen Health Innovators Fellow, is an ABC News contributor.