The American Red Cross says it's facing its worst blood shortage ever, leading the organization to declare its first “national crisis.”

“This is the first time the supply has ever gotten this low. This is serious, it’s a big deal,” said Lisa Landis, an American Red Cross Greater Pennsylvania Region spokesperson. “We are very selective when we engage the words ‘national crisis’ in emergency appeals.”

Red Cross officials cite several factors in the blood donation shortage including weather and pandemic-related cancellations of blood drives and staffing challenges.

“It’s been a rollercoaster since March 2020,” Landis said. “We put out multiple calls for more donors throughout the pandemic because donor turnout was low.”

While Lancaster General Hospital is not rationing blood, Penn Medicine Lancaster General Health officials are evaluating their patients’ needs.

“A sufficient supply of available blood products is essential to care for our oncological, medical and trauma patient needs. Depending on the current inventory levels, we may administer half of a unit of product at a time and may reschedule elective surgeries if we cannot ensure our available blood supply will meet the transfusion needs of our patients,” said Dr. Sarah R. Nassau, a pathologist at LG Health.

While these mitigation strategies are necessary given the current circumstances, Nassau said, they are not a solution.

“We need more blood on the shelves everywhere,” she said.

Dr. Michelle Erickson, an affiliate of WellSpan Health who serves as director of the health system’s Blood Donor Services in York, said the blood supply is low, especially O blood.

“We are very prudent with the blood supply and make sure that blood treatment is indeed the best thing for those who need it, but we are not rationing blood or denying care," she said.

UPMC spokesperson Malini Mattler said the health system has the blood supply needed to care for its patients.

“We have a long-running patient blood management program across the health system, that includes a computerized physician order entry systems to guide evidence-based transfusions, promotes alternative blood transfusion methods and provides blood management education and auditing,” Mattler said.

‘It’s scary’

The American Red Cross, which provides 40% of the nation’s blood supply, is experiencing a 66% drop in donations nationwide, according to Landis.

“We keep a minimum of five-day supplies at all times, but right now we’ve had less than a one-day supply in the last few weeks,” Landis said. “It’s scary. We will have to make some ethical decisions with this short of a supply unless we get some donations soon.”

Jay Wimer, a Central Pennsylvania Blood Bank spokesperson, said blood donations tend to decline at this time of the year when wintry weather and seasonal illnesses lead to lower donor turnout.

He also said the blood supply has dipped to levels the blood bank has not seen before.

“We have never been at levels this low for this long. When blood drives are canceled because of weather, it sends us to uncharted territory. But right now, we are at numbers we had never seen until the pandemic, and this has been our reality for the past two years,” Wimer said.

The Central Pennsylvania Blood Bank serves 11 counties across the region, including Lancaster. Its supply usually averages 930 units of O+ blood for the region. On Tuesday the blood bank had 471 units, Wimer said.

Type O donors are considered universal donors because they can donate to people with type A, B, AB and O blood.

“Right now, all blood types are far below their average numbers,” Wimer said. “The nation is down to a three-day supply of O blood. (The Central Pennsylvania Blood Bank) works to keep a six-day supply in the region. We are currently at about a three-day supply.”

Wimer added that throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, the blood bank has been able to keep the hospitals they serve at 80% to 90% of their normal levels. However, he said, this is the first time the blood bank has not been able to meet this goal during the pandemic and hospitals are currently being kept at less than 70% of their average supply.

“We are calling on past donors and new donors to come out and help by donating all blood types at our donor centers and blood drives,” Wimer said. “We are running as many drives and centers as we can with our limited staffing.”

Vaccinated can give blood

Wimer and Landis both said people who have been vaccinated for COVID-19 can donate their blood.

“Being vaccinated for COVID does not preclude anyone from donating,” Landis said. “We just ask that the person has not been diagnosed with COVID in the previous two weeks.”

Wimer said vaccinated donors are immediately eligible to donate blood if they aren’t experiencing any COVID-19 symptoms. The virus cannot be transmitted through a blood transfusion, he said.

Donors who had COVID-19 are eligible to donate blood 14 days after the onset of the virus if their symptoms are resolving and they have been fever-free for at least 48 hours.

People interested in donating through the Central Pennsylvania Blood Bank can call 1-800-771-0059 or go to cpbb.org.

To schedule an appointment to donate through the American Red Cross, call 1-800-733-2767 go to redcrossblood.org.

Appointments to donate blood at the LG Health Blood Donor Center at the Suburban Outpatient Pavilion at 2104 Harrisburg Pike, Suite 202, in Lancaster city can be made by calling 717-544-0170 or at LGHealth.org/GiveBlood.

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