Alongside our unprecedented spike in COVID cases, there’s a new health crisis in Oregon: a shortage of blood. Blood banks across the state are reporting they have just one day’s worth of blood supply, about a quarter of what they normally have, in a situation that’s already affecting patients in need.
The Red Cross is calling it the worst blood shortage in a decade, with hospitals rationing their stores of blood while organizations like Bloodworks Northwest are hustling to get as many blood donations as possible.
“Just like COVID is tearing through the community at large, that includes blood donors,” says Dr. Kirsten Alcorn, one of the chief medical officers at Bloodworks Northwest.
According to Alcorn, blood donations have ebbed and flowed alongside major outbreaks and surges of COVID-19. Blood banks and hospitals managed to keep a relatively steady supply of blood in the early days of the pandemic as hospitals halted elective surgical procedures and blood banks implemented COVID safety measures.
But when the delta variant hit, donations once again dropped off. By the time omicron came around, donations had slowed to a trickle.
On top of COVID concerns keeping people at home, staffing shortages in the medical industry have lowered some blood banks’ capacity. As people move or change their career trajectories, vacancies are left open in a highly regulated field that requires a lot of training.
By December, it was the perfect storm. “We always see a dip in blood collection and blood inventory around major holiday seasons,” says Alcorn, as people are busy with their families or vacations and donating blood less often.
Added to that was inclement weather that caused transportation issues across the country, disconnecting blood banks from each other. “Since no one area is particularly flush or has any extra to share, that takes away some of the flexibility that is typically inherent in the blood collection system,” says Alcorn.
As a result, hospitals are budgeting their blood supplies for patients in chronic care. “We are only getting through day by day by virtue of that really tight inventory control,” says Alcorn.
Kate Thompson, a retired nurse based in Portland, has already begun to see the impact of the blood shortage in the treatment of her friend Dave Brook. Brook, in his 70s but still active, contracted a breakthrough COVID case in September. The man who was once going on hikes and organizing candlelit vigils struggled with complications that impacted his bone marrow, which produces blood cells. He started requiring multiple blood transfusions a week. Since Thanksgiving, he has been hospitalized three times.
Thompson says that Brook has begun to receive less blood than before, and less than he needs, as the shortage takes its toll on understaffed and underresourced hospitals. As someone with a medical background, Thompson says she was in awe of the health care workers struggling to do their best with so few resources. She says the only other time she has seen shortages like this was when she worked in a hospital as an exchange student in the Philippines.
“I have seen hard stuff. But this is unconscionable in a country as resourced as ours. We have not invested enough in the infrastructure of public health,” says Thompson. “I don’t think people understand how the blood shortage puts us all at risk. We are one driving accident away for needing a transfusion.”
For now, blood banks are encouraging everyone who feels well to schedule an appointment to donate blood, soon and often.
“We want to let people know that this is a constant need,” says Alcorn.