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 needed blood, and they needed it now. 

Videos show hopeful donors standing in the August heat. Some used umbrellas to block the sun, while others used 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.

And as the COVID-19 pandemic forces hundreds of thousands of blood donors to cancel appointments, the need for blood is even more extreme. Regular blood supply is integral to meeting patients’ needs, but blood containing COVID-19 antibodies can also help treat current coronavirus patients.

Just 3% of eligible blood-donors give each year under usual conditions, 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. With the ongoing pandemic, that balance becomes even more precarious as hospitals become fuller and donor sites emptier.

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 crises 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.”

Cancellations

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

According to Jessa Merrill, a communications representative from Red Cross, the following happened during the winter of 2019:

Thirty states experienced blood drive cancellations.

More than 450 Red Cross blood drives were cancelled.

More than 14,000 blood donations went uncollected.

The ongoing coronavirus pandemic is an example of a sustained obstruction — people are limiting excursions outside the home and regular donor sites, like community centers and schools, are closed.

“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 blood donations are made by donors over the age of 40 (PDF, 983 KB), according to AABB. As the primary cohort of blood donors ages out and fewer young people donate, it creates a negative trend in donation levels that will cause more shortages.

How Has COVID-19 Affected Blood Donations?

The COVID-19 pandemic is exacerbating existing blood shortages in the United States. The onset of the pandemic led to more than 37,000 Red Cross blood drive cancellations between March and June of 2020, according to the organization. Schools account for one-fifth of Red Cross blood collections, and their closures mean the steady presentation of vital donors is largely missing.

As of February 2021, just 5% of community blood centers were operating with at least three days’ blood supply, as reported by America’s Blood Centers. More than one quarter have a one-day supply or less. And because the shortage is national, the crisis-response system that allows for regions to supplement others’ supply in times of need is also weakened.

Is It Safe to Give Blood During the Pandemic?

It is safe, and strongly encouraged by blood centers, for eligible donors to make a blood donation during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

  • The Red Cross requires that donors wait 14 days after receiving a positive COVID-19 test or experiencing any COVID-19 symptoms before donating blood.
  • Blood donations are being tested for the COVID-19 antibodies or convalescent plasma. If you are a recovered coronavirus patient, giving plasma could help critically ill COVID-19 patients receive new FDA-approved treatment.

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 seven days for platelets and 16 weeks for red blood cells). Use the American Association of Blood Banks (AABB) blood bank locator to find where to donate blood nearest you.

During the pandemic, remember to bring a face mask with you and monitor for COVID-like symptoms in the two weeks leading to your appointment.


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.

If you are a recovered COVID-19 patient, you can donate with the intent to donate convalescent plasma to a patient in-need. Learn more about convalescent plasma donation on the Food and Drug Administration’s website.


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