Officials at the American Red Cross, responding to the “worst blood shortage in more than a decade,” are encouraging Vermonters to not only consider becoming donors but becoming regular donors.
Jennifer Costa, regional communications director for the American Red Cross of the Northern New England Region, said blood shortages in the United States were not uncommon but the current crisis was unusual because of the “many compounding factors.”
“We have COVID-19 at play here. We have the severe winter weather. We have severe winter weather. We have staffing challenges. Then there’s the holidays when it’s typically a tough time for us to collect blood anyway. These are all happening at the same time,” she said.
The result is the lowest national blood inventories in more than a decade and, at times, as much as a quarter of the hospital blood needs going unmet.
Costa added that what may be the greatest challenge is the shortage has continued for almost four months.
In September, a blood shortage was declared. Costa said that is usually followed by an appeal to the public, which increases donations allowing the Red Cross to build back supply.
“Unfortunately, we’ve now had two COVID-19 variants, as well as those other factors that I mentioned, and that bounce back has not occurred,” she said.
Costa said the shortage was having an effect.
“What we’re hearing now from our hospital partners is that doctors are really faced with making some difficult choices of who gets the blood, who gets a blood transfusion and who has to wait. It’s obviously a situation we never want to be in and we’re doing everything we can, working with our hospital partners, reaching out to the media, to try to get those numbers up,” she said.
Costa said she hoped Vermonters would consider being regular donors.
“What we often see is this rush of first-time donors that come in response to this appeal, to these headlines, but our patients really need that sustained inventory when the spotlight of these headlines fade,” she said.
A donor can give blood safely every 56 days. Costa said if enough Vermonters made that commitment, the American Red Cross might avoid the “peaks and valleys” and continue to maintain a steady supply for patients who need blood.
The Red Cross, which supplies 40% of the nation’s blood, can move blood to where it’s needed, but prioritizes the needs of local hospitals from area donations. However, if another area has a shortage, blood from the Red Cross inventory can be moved to where it needs to go.
In Rutland, the annual Gift of Life Marathon did well last month.
Steve Costello, vice president at Green Mountain Power and a longtime organizer of the blood drive, said it surpassed the goal in 2021. “The drive was a success. Some of the magic from the past was there. We collected almost 500 pints total,” he said.
Costello said the drives that made up the marathon went smoothly with most donors having made appointments. He and Costa said that was important for current blood drives because the donations can be scheduled in a way that alleviates crowding and reduce the chance that a drive will become an event where COVID is spread.
Donors who have been diagnosed with COVID can’t give blood until 14 days after the donor has last had symptoms. There is no requirement to defer donation after getting a vaccination or booster.
According to Costa, one of the best ways to help the Red Cross, especially for Vermonters, is to visit redcrossblood.org/give.html/find-drive and schedule a donation. She said Vermont drives tend to be smaller because of the smaller population of the state and many drives in the immediate future are getting full but those who want to help can schedule a donation five or six weeks out.
The goal for Vermont is to collect 80 pints of blood a day which means donations from 560 different Vermonters.
“We can’t go back to those volunteers for eight weeks. So if you think about a population of 600,000 and every week, we need to find a new 560 people willing to do this, you can see that it can become quite challenging,” she said.
Costa said she knows there are people who overlook the value of blood donations but she had a reminder that it could be more personal than one might think.
“It’s kind of one of those things, unless you’re directly impacted, you may not think about it. But you know what, no one wakes up in the morning and says, ‘I’m going to be a trauma patient today.’ Anyone of us at any moment could be at the mercy of the blood supply,” she said.