DEAR MAYO CLINIC: Why do blood banks need more donors at this time? How will that help care providers take care of people with COVID-19?
ANSWER: At this time, the blood shortage is not due to an unusually high demand for blood products. The problem is a lack of supply. Most people who have COVID-19 don't require blood transfusions. But the COVID-19 pandemic is triggering critical blood shortages across the country and creating challenges for health care institutions. That's because blood collections have plummeted due to concerns about the virus. If you are a healthy adult who is not quarantined, you can help by making an appointment with your local blood collector to donate. If you cannot donate, you can help by sharing messages from your local blood bank.
COVID-19 is a respiratory illness that leads to symptoms such as fever, cough, shortness of breath and difficulty breathing. Symptoms can range widely, from mild to severe. Due to the nature of the COVID-19 pandemic, social distancing — putting space between yourself and others to reduce the spread of illness — has become common. For many people, that includes avoiding public spaces. It also has led to cancellation of community blood drives that many blood banks rely on.
Under normal circumstances, health care organizations typically keep a one- to two-week supply of blood and other blood products. Due to the disruption caused by COVID-19, the blood inventory will continue to be fragile throughout this pandemic.
That's a big problem because the need for blood continues on as usual in many other patient populations. Emergency open-heart surgery requires blood. Trauma care frequently requires multiple units of blood. Cancer patients often depend on donated blood to make it through their chemotherapy treatments. Receiving donated blood may be the difference between life and death for some of these people.
All healthy adults who are not quarantined are strongly encouraged to make an appointment to donate blood. Giving blood by appointment, rather than as a walk-in, enables donor centers to follow social distancing best practices. A new sterile collection set, including the needle, is used for each donor. That means there is no risk of getting a disease by donating blood. And only healthy people should be at the blood donor center. Be assured that blood collection centers always are extremely clean. They have to be to ensure the quality of the blood that's collected for patient care.
A recent study found that fewer than 5% of Americans who are eligible to donate blood actually are donors. That low number has always been a concern. But it's even more worrisome now because some long-term blood donors fall into high-risk categories for COVID-19 due to their age or underlying health concerns, and that will make it difficult for them to continue donating. Other people will have to step up. To meet the need, it likely will require a massive turnout from people who have not donated before or those who have not donated for a long time.
To successfully get past this shortage and through the summer months ahead, when the blood supply is historically low, it's crucial that healthy, eligible donors consider donating blood and make it a habit. Please consider contacting your local blood donation center today to make an appointment to give blood. By doing so, you could save a life.— Dr. Justin Kreuter, Transfusion Medicine, Mayo Clinic, Rochester, Minnesota