4 Ways To Increase Blood Donations Amid a Critical Supply Shortage

Donating blood is always important, but public health experts say it’s especially crucial now that the U.S. faces a critical supply shortage. The American Red Cross—which supplies 40% of the country’s blood—recently warned that the organization is having its “worst blood shortage in over a decade,” which is threatening its ability to adequately supply hospitals and medical centers with the blood they need. The organization says that COVID-19 is largely to blame, citing low donor turnout since the pandemic started, cancellations of blood drives due to pandemic conditions, and staffing issues.

“Amid this crisis, doctors have been forced to make difficult decisions about who receives blood transfusions and who will need to wait until more products become available,” the American Red Cross said in a press release. “Blood and platelet donations are critically needed to help prevent further delays in vital medical treatments.”

Pampee Young, MD, PhD, chief medical officer of the Red Cross, said in a statement that the organization is “doing everything we can to increase blood donations” but added that they “cannot do it without more donors.” Right now, the organization is limiting how much blood they distribute to hospitals, with some medical centers receiving less than a quarter of what they’ve requested.

“Demand inside hospitals for blood is still high,” says Brian Brasser, RN, chief operating officer at Spectrum Health. While there’s no quick and easy fix for increasing the nation’s blood supply, experts say there are a few things that need to happen to encourage donations.

5 Ways To Increase Blood Donations Amid a Critical Supply Shortage

1. People need to feel more comfortable interacting with the health system

Many people have returned to work in offices and make regular trips to the grocery store. However, a sizable portion of the population still doesn’t feel comfortable doing anything in a healthcare setting that they don’t have to. “Plenty of people are trying to avoid anything to do with health because there’s a potential that COVID-19 can be spread,” says Perry N. Halkitis, PhD, dean of the Rutgers School of Public Health. He also says that there’s “false belief with some that somehow blood donation is linked to COVID.”

While the Red Cross has information on its website about how the organization keeps people safe from COVID-19 at its blood donation centers, Dr. Halkitis says that repeatedly stressing this information is crucial to helping people feel more comfortable giving blood.

2. Recruitment efforts should also focus on young people 

School blood drives and blood donation buses are often how younger people donate, but many of those have been shuttered or reduced during the pandemic—and that’s a problem. “We need to obtain healthy donors that are willing to donate,” says Dawn Ward, MD, medical director of the Blood and Platelet Center at UCLA Health. “Additionally, many of our life-long donors are older in age, so we need to do a better job of encouraging and retaining young people to donate blood.”

Convenience is important to this age group, Dr. Halkitis points out, and unless these school-based blood drives and mobile donation centers go back to their pre-pandemic levels, it’s going to be tough to find these donors. “It will happen naturally as cases drop and we come out of this pandemic more,” he says.

3. More word needs to get out about the blood shortage

Dr. Halkitis points out that plenty of people don’t even know there is a blood shortage in the country. “We have to increase awareness that this is happening,” he says. “At the same time, it’s important to message that it’s safe to give blood and that blood is needed now more than ever. That message is just not out there right now.”

Additionally, Dr. Halkitis points out that the stress of living through several years of a global pandemic has taken a toll on many people. “We’re all trying to manage our lives and emotions,” he says. “Charitable donations are not at the top of the list of things to do. We have other demands and stressors that need to be immediately taken care of.”

Blood donation centers and organizations need to tweak their messaging to address this and focus on how good it can feel to do something for others right now, Dr. Halkitis says.

4. The FDA needs to remove donation restrictions for men who have sex with men

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has had blood donation restrictions for years for men who have sex with men. In the 1980s, the FDA instituted a lifetime donation ban on men who have sex with men due to concerns about HIV and AIDS, Dr. Ward explains. The guidance was initially put in place over concerns that men who have sex with men have a higher-than-average risk of having HIV. The lifetime ban was later shortened to a 12-month abstinence period in 2015, and then trimmed to three months in April 2020. “FDA-funded research studies are in place to assess an individuals’ risk and not based on sexual orientation,” Dr. Ward says. “I am hopeful these studies will provide the evidence-based data the FDA needs to implement the change. Lifting the FDA restrictions may increase the number of individuals that are eligible to donate.”

It’s important to note, per Dr. Halkitis, that all blood donations are tested for a slew of infectious diseases, including HIV, which should weed out any issues if someone happened to donate without realizing they were infected. “We still have a segment of the population—gay men—that continues to not be able to give blood,” he says. “The three-month recommendation cuts out a portion of the population that tends to be altruistic and would give blood.”

How to donate blood

If you’re interested in giving blood, Dr. Halkitis recommends looking at the Red Cross website to find a blood drive near you. You can also simply look up your local blood center online and set up a donation appointment, Dr. Ward says.

And, if you want to donate blood but are nervous about the process, Dr. Halkitis recommends talking to someone at the center in advance. They should be able to give you more information about safety protocols they have in place and what the experience will be like.


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