What You Need to Know About America’s Critical Blood Shortage

A person must do two things in life: Vote and donate blood.

I stood not much higher than my mother’s knees the first time I stepped into a curtained voting booth and watched, with awe and confusion, as my mother exercised her democratic right.

Over the years, my parents – endowed with good veins and a common blood type – collected a jewelry box-full of Red Cross lapel pins in the shape of crimson teardrops.

Nobody told me to sign up for the blood drive at my high school when I turned 17, or to register to vote a year later.

A person must do two things in life.

Yet while I never missed an election, my history with the American Red Cross shows a regular series of donations from 1998 to 2006 – and then, none. Not a single appointment for 14 years. I had traveled internationally and given birth to two children in those years, but now my youngest is three. I haven’t been out of the country in five years.

And the nation needs blood more than ever.

The shuttering of society canceled thousands of blood drives in churches, offices, fire stations, high school gymnasiums and colleges – drives that account for 80 percent of the Red Cross’s blood supply.

The U.S. faces a critical shortage.

As early as April, collection was down 325,000 pints nationwide; in Virginia, the state where I live, Gov. Ralph Northam appealed to potential donors during a regularly-scheduled press conference. COVID-19, he reminded Virginians, hadn’t stopped car crashes, childbirths, cancer diagnoses or emergency surgeries.

By early June, the nation’s largest supplier of blood products sounded an even grimmer alarm. Hospitals were resuming elective surgeries and Americans were going out more, yet blood donations had not returned to pre-COVID-19 levels. Inventories were slashed. Chris Hroudra, president of biomedical services for the American Red Cross, called the situation “staggering.”

The plea from Gov. Northam was enough for me to find a donation site. Mass unemployment, rising infection numbers and daily death counts had me feeling helpless. This, I could do.  

The author just after her first blood donation in 14 years this April.
The author just after her first blood donation in 14 years.

Within three days, I sat in my car in an empty mall parking lot, wiping down my purse, glasses and cell phone with Clorox wipes just in case I was an asymptomatic COVID-19 carrier. I rubbed my hands with sanitizer and donned a facemask – not yet required – and walked through a mall with dimmed lights and gates over storefronts, alone except for a solitary mall walker and a security guard, until I found the abandoned store where Red Cross nurses set up shop twice a week.  

I was the first appointment of the day, and early, so I watched through a gate as masked nurses and volunteers wiped down chairs and beds all situated at least six feet apart. When I was allowed to enter, a nurse checked my temperature before waving me inside. A volunteer wiped down the notebook covering eligibility requirements before handing it to me, and then again when I handed it back. When I answered questions on a touchscreen computer, a nurse gave me a squeeze of hand sanitizer before and after. The stress ball I squeezed when a nurse finally stuck a needle into my arm came tucked inside a disposable glove.

Fifty-six days later – the required waiting period between blood donations – I was back again, offering up my second pint  in more than a decade.

Somewhere, someone in the United States needs blood, platelets, plasma or red blood cells every two seconds. That is about twice as long as it takes for life to change.

In a world of uncertainty, that much is absolute.

That, and a person must do two things in life.

TAKE ACTION: Visit redcrossblood.org to find a donation site near you. The Red Cross is offering COVID-19 antibody tests for a limited time with all blood and platelet donations.

How do I know if I am eligible to donate blood?

Most people are, but only 3% of Americans do. To donate blood, you must:

  • Be in good health and feeling well
  • Be at least 16 years old
  • Weigh at least 110 pounds
  • Waited 56 days since your last donation

Is it safe to donate blood even if COVID-19 is rampant in my community?

The Centers for Disease Control and the Food and Drug Administration have called blood donation an essential service during the pandemic. There is no evidence of COVID-19 (or any other respiratory virus) transmission through blood transfusion. Still, the Red Cross has stepped up its safety precautions. For a full list of what they are, check out this link.

What are some common reasons people can’t donate?

You may have to wait if:

  • You have a cold or flu-like symptoms or other illnesses.
  • You have an acute infection.
  • You’ve received certain immunizations within the last few weeks or months. For a list of immunizations and waiting periods, click here.

Does taking medication disqualify me?

In almost all cases, you can still donate blood while taking most medications, including birth control, antidepressants and herbal remedies. To find out which medications may require you to wait, click here.

What if I have traveled outside the United States?

You can be exposed to malaria through travel, and travel in some areas can sometimes defer donors. If you have been outside of the United States, your travel destinations will be reviewed at the time of donation. If you’ve traveled or lived in a malaria-risk country, there may also be a waiting period. You can fill out a travel form in bring it with you in advance of your donation to save time. Find it here. You can also call 866-236-3276 to speak to an eligibility specialist.

What if I can’t donate?

There are still lots of things you can do to help. Consider volunteering or hosting a blood drive through the Red Cross. You can also make a financial donation to support the Red Cross’s greatest needs. These gifts help ensure an ongoing blood supply and provide humanitarian support to families in need, as well as prepare communities by teaching lifesaving skills.