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Illustration of the eight main blood types | CU School of Medicine

National Blood Donor Month Highlights Ongoing Need for Regular Blood Donation

Mary Berg, MD, discusses shortages of blood products and how the COVID pandemic has impacted supplies.

minute read

Written by Rachel Sauer on January 25, 2022

The American Red Cross recently made headlines when it announced that anyone who donates blood between January 1–31 will automatically be entered to win two tickets to Super Bowl LVI February 13 in Los Angeles.

The drawing, being held in partnership with the National Football League, aims to address what the American Red Cross is calling the worst blood shortage in a decade. In Colorado, the effects of that shortage are being felt in hospitals and clinics by providers and patients.

Because January is National Blood Donor Month, we recently discussed the impact of local blood shortages and the urgent need for donors with Mary Berg, MD, a professor of clinical practice in pathology and medical director for transfusion services at UCHealth University of Colorado Hospital (UCH).

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What are some of the reasons why the blood shortage is so serious right now?

Every year, we start to see shortages around the holiday time – when people are out doing their holiday shopping or getting ready for the holidays, maybe they aren’t thinking as much about donating blood. Also, some of our best blood drives are done at high schools, and if high schools are off over the holidays, we’re not having blood drives there, either.

The COVID-19 pandemic has had a major impact for a lot of reasons, one of which is that large employers with many employees who may have sponsored blood drives in the past aren’t doing that as much right now. A lot of blood drives have been canceled because people are out sick and also because they’re worried about social distancing. I do want to point out that blood donation centers are aware of this, so they have things spaced out and they have social distancing between donors.

Can someone who has had COVID-19 donate?

Yes, you can donate as long as you’re not symptomatic. Also, someone who’s recently been vaccinated can donate; there’s no time restriction on that. However, if you currently have symptomatic COVID or you’ve been recently exposed and are concerned you might be coming down with it, that’s a reason not to donate.

How serious are the blood shortages here on the Front Range?

We rate shortages at three levels. Level 1 means we’re just a little shy of where we want to be. Level 2 is when we start having to take extra measures to make sure we’re not getting too short, and Level 3 means we’re in trouble. Right now, we’re at a Level 3 shortage for type O red cells, and everything else is at Level 2. But I also think we’re one massive transfusion protocol away from not having enough on the shelf. We’re communicating to surgeons that our supplies might not meet the need.

For example, at UCHealth our typical platelet inventory is a minimum of 10 units. Once we get lower than 10, we say this isn’t really a good situation. By the time we get down to six, we start beating the bushes to find more. When we call our supplier for more units, it may take an hour for those supplies to arrive at the hospital and that may not help a patient who is bleeding now.

Speaking of timing, a common thought seems to be, “My friend or loved one needs blood right now; I’m going to go donate.”

Right, and we support people any time they donate; we’re grateful for it. But if I need blood right now, someone donating today is not going to help me. My blood supply today depends on people who donated yesterday or the day before that. If you donate after a trauma has happened, it’s too late. If you go and donate now, they’re not going to get your blood. So, we rely on people donating on a regular basis and not waiting for big traumas to happen before donating.

Another thing to think about is, the big users get a lot of attention, the traumas and emergencies. But, for example, an oncology patient may need platelet donors to support them, and it’s not a big, dramatic need requiring 20 units. They may need one platelet unit, and that regular blood donation can support ongoing need. Regular donations can give that cancer patient the one platelet unit they need.

Because of the shortage, blood donation centers are having to get creative, like the American Red Cross with Super Bowl tickets. Do incentives like this help?

I think it does help raise awareness, and this is National Blood Donor Month, so it ties in with that. There are several similar promotions – Krispy Kreme is giving out a dozen donuts to people who donate and Vitalant is doing drawings for $5,000 gift cards. Ultimately, the goal is for people to just make blood donation a habit. Those who are eligible can donate whole blood every 56 days, and if everyone who is eligible donated even two times a year, our blood supply would be so much higher.

About 63% of the U.S. adult population is eligible to donate, but only about 5% of those who are eligible do. There’s no upper age limit, and the lower age limit is 16 with parental permission, so as long as you’re healthy you could be 90 and still donating blood.

When we’ve surveyed people about why they’re not donating blood, No. 1 is they don’t like needles, and No. 2 is they may not see a need. But No. 3 is nobody’s ever asked them to, so we’re asking. One way to think of it is this is something you can do that will truly help the greater community and help somebody you will never even meet, and you don’t have to pay anything to do it. This is one charity that is not asking for money. And if you’re not eligible to donate, encourage friends and loved ones who are eligible to donate. Don’t wait until you know somebody who needs it. This month may be National Blood Donor Month, but the need is year-round.

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Mary Berg, MD