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Blood supplies at crisis levels across Central PA

Steve Coiner, of Ephrata, has his blood drawn, during a blood drive sponsored by the American Red Cross at Grace Point Church of Nazarene in Ephrata Friday March 20, 2020. The American Red Cross now faces a severe blood shortage due to an unprecedented number of blood drive cancellations in response to the coronavirus outbreak. Healthy individuals are needed now to donate to help patients counting on lifesaving blood.

Blood donations often wax and wane, but a shortage wrought by the COVID-19 pandemic is so severe that, if left unabated, it could result in rationing blood products, health officials said Monday.

“It’s a very real outcome if the collection cannot happen,” said Lisa Landis, an American Red Cross Greater Pennsylvania Region spokesperson. “That’s the scary precedent.”

Landis added, “This is the course we’re on right now if we can’t get this right side up.”

Jay Wimer, a spokesperson for the Central Pennsylvania Blood Bank, said Monday those difficult discussions have already been taking place.

“The concern today is that blood is not going to be here when it’s needed,” Wimer said.

It’s unclear whether the shortage has led to actual rationing.

The Central Pennsylvania Blood Bank serves 11 counties across the region. Wimer said Lancaster County hospitals, including UPMC Lititz and WellSpan Ephrata Community, are receiving 80% of predetermined inventory levels.

The blood shortage is reaching a crisis level.

For example, the Central Pennsylvania Blood Bank typically will have on hand about 800 to 900 units of O+ blood. Falling below 800 units, Wimer said, raises capacity concerns across the system.

On Monday, the Central Pennsylvania Blood Bank had 498 units of O+ blood.

“We’ve been saying ‘Oh My God’ for 15 months,” Wimer said. “It went down and it never returned.”

Type O is considered a universal donor — and the most sought after — because these donors can donate to recipients with blood types A, B, AB and O.

‘Donor turnout is decreasing’

The demand for blood products among the hospitals Central Pennsylvania Blood Bank serves is up between 5% and 8%, according to Dr. Kip Kuttner, the blood bank’s medical director. Nationally, demand is up between 5% and 25%, depending on the region.

“Not only is the demand increasing, but donor turnout is decreasing disproportionately,” Landis said.

Penn Medicine Lancaster General Health, which operates the Lancaster General Health Blood Donor Center, has felt the impact of the ongoing blood shortage.

“We continue to rely on our community members to donate for our patients at Lancaster General Health, and must also purchase some products from the American Red Cross and other donor centers to help us meet our needs,” Marcie Brody, an LG Health spokesperson, said in an email. “Due to the impact of the coronavirus, the current needs locally and nationally are greater than ever.”

The reason for the national blood shortage is multifaceted.

COVID-19 treatment doesn’t require substantial amounts of blood. However, patients who put off care during the pandemic are now returning to the hospital for elective surgeries and routine checkups, often with advanced conditions.

One patient alone can require more than 50 units of blood when responding to a trauma.

“The standard of care for treating massively bleeding patients has advanced, dramatically enhancing survivability following car crashes, gunshot wounds, farm injuries and other conditions involving massive bleeding,” Kuttner said in an email.

But this advance requires more available blood in trauma centers.

Kuttner added, “Because these patients can use more than 50 units of blood, I have had discussions about rationing blood products for these patients with treating doctors, in order to extend the current blood supply.”

Before COVID-19, the Central Pennsylvania Blood Bank was doing 150 blood drives a month, and roughly 40% came from workplace donations. The organization is doing about half that now.

A workplace blood drive before COVID-19 that had 65 employees may now have only 10 working in-person, Wimer said.

In August 2019, 152 blood drives across the region brought in 3,099 units. Last month, the Central Pennsylvania Blood Bank had 60 drives that captured 2,425 units of blood, a 22% decrease. Weekly, the Central Pennsylvania Blood Bank needs 200 donations, but it receiving 130 donations.

To make up for the lagging blood donations nationally at the American Red Cross, the organization would have to collect 10,000 additional blood products each week over the next month.

Blood donor participation decreased about 10% in August, according to the American Red Cross.

“Fall is typically a time when the blood supply rebounds as donors are more available to give than during the busy summer months, but this year has presented a unique and serious challenge,” Dr. Pampee Young, chief medical officer for the Red Cross, said in a press release.

In addition to feeding and sheltering disaster victims, the American Red Cross also supplies about 40% of the nation’s blood.

Young added, “While it’s clear the pandemic continues to weigh heavily on our minds, the Red Cross asks the public to remember donating blood and platelets is essential to the many patients that rely on lifesaving transfusions every day.”

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