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Blood banks say they have protocols in place to make sure donors can give blood safely. JuFagundes/Getty Images
  • Blood banks are reporting critical shortages of blood supply and are even offering gift cards and other incentives to encourage donors.
  • Officials say the COVID-19 pandemic is a major factor, because there are now few blood drives at businesses and schools.
  • They note that donation centers have safety measures in place to make sure donors are safe.

The nation’s blood supply is at a critical low point — so low that some experts fear doctors might have to decide among their sickest patients who gets the blood that’s on hand.

The American Red Cross supplies about 40 percent of the country’s blood needs. Officials at the organization say its inventory is the lowest for this time of the year since 2015.

“We are at less than half a day’s supply for some blood types, and that’s really what’s different. Usually, this time of year, we’re recovering from summer shortages, and we are preparing for winter shortages,” said Dr. Baia Lasky, a medical director of biomedical services for the American Red Cross.

“The fact that we are at this low of an inventory at this time, when we should have strong inventory, is extremely worrisome for where that will leave us going into the winter months,” she told Healthline.

Lasky said the Red Cross is in touch with its member hospitals day by day, often hour by hour.

“Sometimes, when we’re at this level, the orders often have to be triaged by the medical directors,” she said.

“Sometimes it’s a Friday night, and I’m getting multiple calls from multiple hospitals. One has a car accident. One has a patient in labor and delivery with an obstetric hemorrhage. One is a cancer patient. And I’m watching my inventory dwindle away, hoping that I can support these patients through the night,” she explained.

“So it’s really coming down to evaluating patient by patient and we’re all making the best decisions we can, just to get us through every night,” she added.

Other blood banks are experiencing shortages, too.

“We currently have less than a 4 day supply of most blood types, less than a 2 day supply of blood type O. It’s at the lowest level since the start of the pandemic,” said Kevin Adler, a spokesperson for Vitalant, an organization that supplies blood and blood products to more than 900 hospitals across the country.

Adler said the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted many of their community blood drives, which serve as a lifeline for blood donations.

“A lot of businesses are still having workers work from home. Sometimes, they’re not allowing anyone else inside their facilities where we used to do blood drives,” he told Healthline.

“When school is in session, we bring in about 25 percent of our blood supply from student donors. But the schools aren’t running blood drives,” he added.

Lasky said the lack of blood drives has also hurt the Red Cross inventory.

“During the pandemic, we had to shift a lot of how we operate,” she said. “We generally run mobile drives at high school and college campuses, sporting events, churches, and other faith-based organizations, which have been closed.”

She said, even when things began reopening, the surge of the Delta variant kept donors at home.

“Cases are coming down, but we’re still not seeing the donors. They’re not coming in the way we need them to,” she said.

This month, the Red Cross is offering donors a $5 e-card they can redeem at a sandwich shop. They hope it will encourage donors to “help save a life during lunch.”

The chronic shortages that were happening, even before the pandemic hit, have prompted other blood banks to offer ongoing incentives to their frequent donors.

Vitalant offers a Donor Recognition Program where regular donors can earn points toward gift cards for national retailers.

“It’s a nice way to reward regular donors. It’s not much, but it’s a nice thank you,” Adler said.

On its website, the New York Blood Center offers a Donor Advantage Program for frequent blood, platelet, and plasma donors. Donors can get points redeemable for gifts or gift cards.

The blood banks are asking donors to roll up their sleeves and come back out to donate. They are assuring them that proper COVID-19 protocols are being followed.

“Masks are required. We are taking extra precautions to make sure everybody is as safe and healthy as possible during the entire process,” Adler said.

Lasky said the Red Cross is following the guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The facilities are keeping beds an appropriate distance apart, and appointments control the donor flow and avoid overcrowding.

If you want to donate, go to the blood bank’s website to check out the eligibility rules. They may vary from state to state. You can also make an appointment online.

The Red Cross has a Blood Donor app. It can tell you the nearest donor site and let you make an appointment.

“Make an appointment. Then consider donating again, because the need is really ongoing,” Lasky said.