As COVID-19 fades, hospitals face new challenge with ‘severe’ blood shortage

By: Tiffany Esshaki | Metro | Published July 9, 2021

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METRO DETROIT — Just over a year ago, the world came to a halt.

The COVID-19 pandemic put a lot of things on hold, including a lot of non-emergent medical procedures. Those were postponed until just recently, as virus case counts fall and hospitals are able to free up resources that have been devoted to virus treatment for the past year and a half.

As surgeries kick back into gear, it makes sense that there would be a higher demand for blood infusions. But demand for blood is higher than supply — a lot higher. Some in the health care industry are even saying the blood shortage in the United States is the most severe in history.

According to Todd Kulman, the regional communications manager for the American Red Cross-Michigan Region, the organization declared an emergency shortage in mid-June.

“Transplant patients and elective surgeries that were deferred are being rescheduled, and we’re seeing an increase in the number of trauma cases,” he explained. “It’s a perfect storm.”

‘Personal and special’
Debbie Smith, a senior adult programmer at the Costick Center in Farmington Hills, donated during a blood drive held at the center June 2. She said she gives regularly, and she’s never felt unsafe, even amid the pandemic.

“I have a very personal reason why I give,” Smith explained. “My son is in remission, he’s a cancer survivor. He had to get quite a few blood transfusions over the course of treatment. So it’s personal and special to me.”

Gillian Pines, the public information officer for the city of Farmington Hills, said the center hosts blood drives in January, June and September. They’re so well attended, she said, the Costick Center was deemed a leader in the blood donation program by the American Red Cross.

“On June 2 we had 78 donors … and 68 units were collected. Six of them were first-time donors,” Pines said.

The Costick Center will host another drive on Sept. 15, and there’s a good chance visitors will spot Smith at that event, too.

“It doesn’t hurt, and it’s something we can all give. Our bodies can create something that is in critical need on so many levels, from pediatric patients to the elderly,” she said.

Sign of the times
Emergency centers around the nation have seen a 10% increase in traumatic injuries in 2021 compared to 2019, in part from a rise in mass shootings and societal tensions escalating to violence.

Add to that a major drop in donation drives and general anxieties about giving blood amid a pandemic, and the result has been catastrophic. Within a week of the state’s Stay at Home order implemented last March, 200 blood donations had to be canceled, resulting in more than 150,000 fewer blood donations. Across the country, close to 4,500 donation drives were scrapped.

“During the summertime, blood donations usually take a backseat to vacations and other activities. We’ll have to wait until fall to rebook the blood drives at schools that were cancelled, and we’re still trying to ensure the public that blood donation is safe. People were nervous to go anywhere after lockdowns,” Kulman said.

Cleanliness is key
But like everything else in our “new normal,” safety guidelines and precautions have made all the difference to prevent spreading the COVID-19 virus during blood donations. Kulman said the American Red Cross still checks the temperature of all visitors and medical professionals upon arrival, and they’ve marked off socially distanced spaces between seating areas and donation stations.

And as far as sanitation and wiping down surfaces, they’ve been doing that for decades.

“There were challenges at the beginning. But Gov. (Gretchen) Whitmer donated blood a couple times last year to ensure the public it was safe, and the Department of Health and Human Services released a press release saying that it’s safe to donate blood, and integral,” Kulman said.

Blood banks are doing what they can to ramp up donations, along with medical centers across metro Detroit and beyond.

“To continue providing compassionate and extraordinary care to our patients, we are working diligently with blood suppliers to stabilize and increase the supply of blood. The effort is expected to take several weeks,” Carolyn Wilson, Beaumont Health’s executive vice president and chief operating officer, said in a press release. “We are asking our Beaumont health care heroes to donate their own blood to help our communities. And, we’re also asking the public to support this effort by donating their own blood, too.”

Plasma perks
Not only is blood donation safe for donors, it’s safe for recipients too. Kulman said COVID-19 is just one more of a myriad of contagions collection centers test for, along with virus antibodies.

“When they make a donation, we test for a whole host of things. For a long period last year, we were testing all blood products for COVID antibodies. If they had high levels of antibodies in their blood, they might be a candidate to donate convalescent plasma,” he explained.

That plasma was vital to treating severely infected COVID-19 patients at the height of the pandemic. Now, antibody treatments are easier for medical professionals to access.

“Over the past year, we’ve distributed more than 150,000 plasma products from individuals who have recovered from COVID-19 to help with treatment for the most seriously ill patients,” he added.

Individuals who are healthy and eligible to give blood or platelets are urged to make an appointment to donate by using the Red Cross Blood Donor App on mobile phones, visiting or calling (800) RED-CROSS (1-800-733-2767).