Bloodlines: How the pandemic created a nationwide blood shortage


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Amidst the coronavirus outbreak, a concurrent crisis related to blood shortages began to emerge as nationwide lockdowns were implemented. In efforts to mitigate the pandemic ‘s reach, the public stayed home as normalcy was delayed indefinitely. This resulted in several social, economic, and medical dilemmas.

In addition to school and business closures, the virus not only threatened public health, but it also severely hindered the collection and availability of blood.

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According to a press release, the American Red Cross stated that by March 17, 2020, nearly 2,700 blood drives were canceled due to concerns surrounding the virus. This resulted in the loss of 86,000 donations which directly impacted cancer patients, accident victims, and individuals facing life-threatening emergencies.

The steady surge of new variants further complicated donation efforts as blood drives were routinely canceled due to donor hesitancy. Winter weather also contributed to declining donation rates. Many blood drives were never rescheduled, resulting in massive blood shortages as donation centers limited blood distribution and medical facilities utilized blood reserves to serve patients.

Diane Concannon, the director of Communications for American Red Cross New Jersey, indicated that the blood shortage is a direct threat to patient care.

“The Red Cross has experienced about a 10% decline in the number of people donating blood since the pandemic began … The Red Cross has had less than a one-day supply of critical blood products in recent weeks – well below the ideal five-day supply.

“The blood shortage poses a concerning risk to patient care. Doctors have been forced to make difficult decisions about who receives transfusions and who will need to wait until more products become available,” Concannon said.

According to the Red Cross, blood reserves have a limited lifespan that range from five days to a year. They must be proactively restocked to maintain a surplus of blood products.

As of March 10, 2021, the nationwide blood shortage prompted the Red Cross to spend $72.4 million on public awareness campaigns, staff retention efforts, and blood collection resources.

The multi-faceted outreach aimed to address problem areas created by the pandemic.

Christopher E. Ramirez, the regional administrative director for Laboratory and Pathology Services at Monmouth Medical Center in Long Branch, explained that the shortage was sustained by public uncertainty and a depleted workforce. The pandemic diminished the supply of workers and donors, while demand for donations continued to increase.

“The unknowns at the beginning of the pandemic led to the reluctance of potential donors to go out and donate in public places, as well as facilities who previously held blood drives were not available.

“As time went on, the need for donors increased. Hospitals and other healthcare organizations that transfuse blood and blood products continued to do so while donors were not coming out to donate as they had pre-pandemic. Blood suppliers began to slowly deplete their inventory and reserves.

“The workforce that collected, processed, and distributed blood and blood products were also affected. Without a healthy workforce, this led to fewer drives, delays in processing and distribution of blood and blood products,”

Ramirez confirmed Concannon’s statement that many hospitals were forced to review and prioritize the logistics of patient care. Those identified as “critical” were prioritized while “non-emergent” cases were temporarily delayed.

Thus, postponing the treatment of countless individuals suffering from a spectrum of health concerns.

For Dawn Applegate of Roebling, a prolonged wait could have resulted in disaster for her son and husband.

At nine years old, her son Daniel was diagnosed with Evans syndrome, a rare disease that targets and destroys red and white blood cells. The unfortunate discovery left Daniel in critical condition at the Bristol-Myers Squibb Children’s Hospital at Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital in New Brunswick.

“He waited hours for his blood type. He coded while waiting. Finally, the New York Blood Center came through in New York and had a match,” Applegate said.

Applegate’s husband, Chris, was also diagnosed with immune thrombocytopenia (ITP), a blood disorder that results in continual bleeding and bruising due to a lack of platelets.

“My husband Chris passed out and was taken to the hospital and diagnosed with ITP. After five years, the underlying disease is STAT3 GOF (genetic immune system disorder), diagnosed at the National Institute of Health,” Dawn said.

Despite the life-threatening diagnosis for both Daniel and Chris, they have both managed to survive their medical ordeals. They each expressed gratitude to those who donated the blood that saved their lives.

“You are all angels here on earth to help those who need it. Blood saved my life over and over again. If it wasn’t for blood donors, I would not be here. I lost count how many infusions and IVIgs (intravenous immunoglobulin therapy) I’ve got. Too many. But if it wasn’t for all of you, my dad and I would not be here,” Daniel said.

“God bless everyone who donates. They saved my Daniel and I many times,” Chris Applegate said.

“Please get out and donate, our family relies on blood products to survive. Thank you to each one of you,” Dawn Applegate said.

For George Lerner of Marlboro, the act of donating blood is how he “pays it forward” to those who helped him as a child.

In 1941, Lerner was born with a heart defect that required surgical repair. His parents were informed that he wouldn’t survive past his teenage years.

According to Lerner, blood transfusions weren’t affordable, and at the time, surgery had never been performed on a beating heart.

He explained that through friends and family, he received the blood donations that allowed him to have his lifesaving operation. Now, at 80 years old, he frequently donates blood to help people like the Applegates survive.

“In the first place, donated blood saved my life, and every two seconds, someone requires a blood transfusion. I can’t think of anything more important …

“I feel good and proud about myself every time I donate. I know that I have made a difference in a patient’s life, perhaps even several patients.

“And what about those friends and family members who worry about those patients. I bet they are very grateful that someone stepped up and donated the blood that helped them on their road to recovery,” Lerner said.

Unfortunately, the nation’s blood supply remains critically low.

On Jan. 10, 2022, a joint statement was released by the Association for Advancement of Blood & Biotherapies, America’s Blood Centers, and the Red Cross that stated: “In recent weeks, blood centers across the country have reported less than a one-day’s supply of blood of certain critical blood types – a dangerously low level. If the nation’s blood supply does not stabilize soon, lifesaving blood may not be available for some patients when it is needed.”

Concannon stated that although the pandemic has altered everyday life, it’s important that people continue to donate.

“Every community in America needs blood on a daily basis. At a time when many businesses and organizations across the country are experiencing pandemic challenges, the Red Cross is no different.

“And while we are all learning how to live in this new environment, how we spend our time, where we work, how we give back, how we make a difference in the lives of others – donating blood must continue to be part of it,” Concannon said.

In a call to action, Concannon explained that all donations and blood types are needed to benefit individuals suffering from life threatening illnesses and those in emergency situations.

“All blood types are needed, especially types O positive and O negative. Platelet donations are also urgently needed. Platelets are the clotting portion of blood, which must be transfused within five days of donation. Nearly half of all platelet donations are given to patients undergoing cancer treatments – a disease all too familiar to millions of Americans and their families.

“During this blood crisis, the Red Cross asks the country to roll up a sleeve to help ensure people in their communities receive the care they need. Make an appointment to give blood or platelets as soon as possible by using the Red Cross Blood Donor App, visiting or calling 1-800-RED CROSS (1-800-733-2767),” Concannon said.

For more information on New Jersey Blood Services and how to locate a blood drive or donation center, visit or call 1-800-933-2566.

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