By Andrea Pineda-Salgado
Since the start of the pandemic in spring 2020, donations have dropped to almost half of what they used to be. Numbers are still low and it has been hard for donations to catch up to pre-pandemic numbers. This past holiday season, the numbers significantly dropped, putting people who desperately need donations at risk.
Andrea Cefarelli is the senior executive director at the New York Blood Center and says the current blood shortage has been due to a combination of the lack of blood drives and the Omicron surge.
“Pre-pandemic, we got about 75,000 annual blood donations from first-time high school and college blood donors and the majority of these high schools and colleges are not yet back hosting blood drives,” said Cefarelli. “There are churches that haven’t returned to hosting drives because fewer people are attending services and mass corporations that had significant employee blood programs. Now their employees are working remotely … there are just so many changes to our day-to-day life that are making it harder to get blood donors.”
The amount of blood donations has fluctuated since the start of the pandemic, but the number of donations has stayed significantly low. According to Cefarelli, New York City hospitals need around 33,000 blood donations a month.
“Early in the pandemic, we were collecting half of that, when the world was shut down. We’ve been slowly increasing the number of blood donations and in December we collected 29,000 donations which was really good. But the other thing that’s happening as we go through the second year of the pandemic, soon to be the third year, the need for blood is rising. So hospitals need about 33,000. It’s that gap every month between what we’re collecting and what they really need. We never get a chance to catch up,” Cefarelli said.
At this point, a dip in donations is risky and during the wintertime, a snowstorm or cold day could lessen donations significantly. Before the pandemic, if New York had a nor’easter, other states could easily share blood but now there is not enough blood to go around.
That’s dangerous for the many hospital patients who need blood.
“Cancer and leukemia patients need red cells and platelets. Platelets are like a million tiny bandaids, you know, that prevent internal bleeding. Plasma is used in trauma situations but also burns victims. Red cells can be for chronic diseases like thalassemia, sickle cell, or common knee surgery, heart surgery, or any kind of surgery,” Cefarelli said.
Donated blood is also used in emergency rooms for people who get into all kinds of accidents. According to the Red Cross, a single car accident victim may need as many as 100 units of blood—that is about 10 blood donations.
While the Red Cross needs all types of blood donations, the blood type that is most in demand is O-negative.
“O-negative is what we call the universal donor. O-negative is the one type you can give to anyone else that has any of the eight blood types. It’s only present in about 6 or 8% of the population, but it’s the type used in trauma. If you’re in a car accident, and you go to an emergency room and you need blood quickly, you’ll get O-negative because it’s safely transferable to anyone,” Cefarelli said. O-positive blood is also in demand as it is the most common blood type.
Many New Yorkers may not want to donate blood because they are afraid of catching Covid-19, but Cefarelli said that it’s safe and the New York Blood Center is doing everything it can to help stop the spread.
“We’ve gone to extraordinary mass measures to keep our donors and our staff safe. Even when masks, you know, started to not be required in the fall, our staff wore masks and we required our donors to wear masks. Our staff is all fully vaccinated. We make sure to clean all of our equipment and tablets between every donor and we prefer appointments. All of our refreshments, juice, and cookies that we give after you give blood are individually wrapped,” she said.
People who have symptoms of Covid-19 or are sick are not allowed to donate blood until they are better or test negative for the virus. If for some reason an asymptomatic person donates blood, rest assured Covid-19 is not transmitted via blood or blood products.
The New York Blood Center’s plea to New Yorkers: Your fellow New Yorkers need you.
“You’re probably sick of hearing us say urgent and crisis, and we really need you. That’s a symptom of a two-year pandemic, but the blood supply is very low again. We need first-time donors and people to brave the cold weather and come out, bring your neighbor, bring your 17, 16-year-old child, donate as a family or as a group, or host a blood drive,” she said. “Or if you can help spread the word through social media and who you talk to that [donating blood] is a really cool thing to do. It’s easier than you think.”