Donating Blood in Times of Crisis: How to Help

The line to donate wrapped around the building and snaked through the Vitalant parking lot in El Paso, Texas. Hundreds of people were responding to the El Paso Police Department’s call to action after a mass shooting: People need blood and they need it now.

Videos show aspiring donors standing in the August heat. Some use umbrellas to block the sun, while others use their hands as a personal fan. It’s reminiscent of the scene in Las Vegas almost two years earlier, when blood donors lined up through the night after a mass shooting left 58 people dead and more than 500 injured.

Mass casualty events command the public’s attention and resources, but there are other emergencies that require blood happening every day — from car crashes and drownings to hurricanes and heat waves. Not as many people tend to line up for those, however.

Just 3% of eligible blood-donors give each year, according to the Red Cross. While that is equal to about 6.8 million people, it’s still a delicate balance of supply, demand, and inventory to meet hospitals’ needs.

What Is a Blood Shortage, and Why Does It Happen?

Blood is always needed, but a blood shortage means that there is severely limited inventory. If left unresolved, then hospitals will be limited in their ability to support patients.

Dr. Meghan Delaney, Director of Transfusion Medicine at Children’s National Hospital in Washington, DC, explained how crisis response can look different depending on the hospital. At Children’s National, every blood order needs to be reviewed by a transfusion specialist when there’s a shortage. “We basically go into a triage prioritization for a short period of time until our next order comes in,” said Delaney.

Meanwhile, Ruth Sylvester, Director of Regulatory Services at America’s Blood Centers, is part of a team that oversees crisis from above as a network of blood suppliers. In cases of emergency, their system calls for the coordination of entire regions to figure who needs blood and how they can get it as soon as possible.

Whether a shortage is concentrated at one hospital or crippling an entire region, consistently low donor levels means that blood shortages can arise for a lot of reasons. According to experts, there are three main prompts for concern:

Sudden Use

An unexpected crisis or mass casualty event can drastically reduce the available inventory. Mass traumas like shootings can garner a lot of press and attention, and people often understand the call to action in those cases. However, it can be hard to manage inventory in those situations. Blood banks can become overwhelmed by an influx of donations with a ticking expiration date.

And in the cases of emergency need, Sylvester said, “It’s the blood on the shelf that’s going to save the patients’ lives.”


Bad weather, natural disasters, and the holidays can force people to skip or cancel appointments to donate. Experts agreed that the summer and the holidays are routinely challenging times to meet blood needs.

According to Jessa Merrill, a Communications Representative from Red Cross, this past winter:

Thirty states experienced blood drive cancellations including New York, Illinois, Michigan, Minnesota, Georgia, and Ohio

More than 450 Red Cross blood drives were cancelled.

More than 14,000 blood donations went uncollected.

“Anything that’s going to limit people to safely come out and donate or to be comfortable being out in the community is a potential risk to blood supply,” said Paul Sullivan, Senior Vice President of Donor Services at the Red Cross. “So much of the blood program is dependent on that predictable, steady presentation of donors willing to give blood.”

Future Trends

Forecasting can indicate if the number of blood drives and upcoming appointments will be enough to meet the expected demand. Almost 60% of donations are made by donors over the age of 40, according to AABB. As the primary cohort of blood donors age out and fewer young people donate, it creates a negative trend in donation levels that will cause more shortages.

How Can I Help During a Blood Emergency?

In order to ensure an adequate supply is available in emergencies, “we need to make sure people understand that giving blood is something that we all need to commit to,” said Sullivan. That commitment can come in a variety of ways. Below are a few ways to support blood needs across the country.

Donate regularly (if you’re eligible)

The most direct way to help is to give blood. Waiting periods between giving vary by the type of donation (ranging from 7 days for platelets and 16 weeks for red blood cells). Use AABB’s (American Association of Blood Banks) blood bank locator to find where to donate blood nearest you.

Make a targeted donation

This can include donating a specific blood component based on your blood type or current need, as well as donating through a hospital to serve a specific patient population.

Organize a blood drive in your place of work, worship, school, or community center

Sullivan said one of the concerning trends is people are less involved in community groups or places of worship than they used to be. Those are organizations and routines that blood donation centers can rely on because of their dependability and sense of responsibility. The organization hosting a blood drive should be comfortable as the sponsor — not all religious faiths support blood donation.

Volunteer to recruit donors or work at other blood drives

Organizations like the Red Cross need people to help set up, sign in, and facilitate their blood drives across the country.

Post on social media about blood donation

Let your community know when you donate blood, and explain why you found it meaningful. Educating and supporting would-be donors creates a stronger network of those willing to give and give regularly.

Citation for this content: Nursing@Georgetown, the online DNP program from the School of Nursing & Health Studies