The COVID-19 pandemic has brought a lot of behavioral changes and not all of them are good — for example, blood donation.
Western North Carolina’s blood supply is maintained through the nonprofit The Blood Connection, which serves North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia. Its five mobile units travel throughout WNC taking donations in communities, and it has brick-and-mortar locations in Arden and Hendersonville.
Spokesperson Katie Smithson says that at the beginning of the pandemic, The Blood Connection saw “a huge response from the community … a spike in donations.” But these slowed as the pandemic wore on, and she described the current situation as “fluctuating.”
By spring 2021, The Blood Connection warned its blood supply was “critically low.” It also faced a critical need during the summer of 2021, Smithson explains, attributing the dip in donations to people going on vacation. Although donations improved for about a month when the school year began, the omicron variant’s spike in COVID-19 cases prompted blood donations to plunge again. “The beginning of this year was as bad as we’ve seen it in quite some time,” she says.
The Blood Connection “needs to collect 800 units per day to ensure we have a steady supply of blood products for local hospitals,” she says. (Blood is measured in units and one unit is 250 milliliters.) From Feb. 1-27, The Blood Connection only hit its daily target on seven days, Smithson says. It collected an average of 686 units per day in February, she continues, which creates “an accumulating deficit.”
The local blood supply isn’t the only inventory that’s flagging. The American Red Cross, which supplies 40% of the country’s blood supply, says it’s facing the worst blood shortage in a decade.
Hospitals stock inventory of each blood type: A, B, AB and O, each of which can be positive or negative (called the Rh status). Facilities keep different amounts of each blood type on hand corresponding with its prevalence in the population. “We monitor those levels to make sure that if a call were to come in [requesting more blood], we have it on hand,” Smithson says.
The most common blood type is O-positive, as it can be found in 38% of the world population, according to The Red Cross. O-negative is a universal blood type, as anyone can receive it. It’s also the most frequent blood type to run out in a shortage, The Red Cross says.
After blood is donated locally, it is sent back to Piedmont, S.C., where The Blood Connection is headquartered, to be tested for bloodborne illnesses like HIV, says Smithson. It is also separated into three parts — red blood cells, platelets and plasma — which each have their own medical uses. Then it is returned to the location where it was donated, she explains. “Our goal is always to make sure that the blood that is donated in the community stays in the community,” she explains.
What constitutes a blood shortage depends on the needs of the community, Smithson says. Hospitals have a general idea of the amount of blood they need for planned surgeries, but they also need to plan for the unknown. In an emergency “one person could come in and need upwards of 20 units of blood,” she explains.
Each local hospital has different criteria for the inventory of blood it keeps on hand. Charles George VA Medical Center chief of staff Dr. Ash Ahsanuddin notes that low stock isn’t the same as a shortage, though the two can be related. The VA typically stocks about 40 units of blood composed of different types, he continues. A low stock for the VA would be considered having 30 units or fewer. Mission Health and Charles George VA Medical Center also have a sharing agreement to resupply each other’s inventory when needed, says Ahsanuddin.
AdventHealth Hendersonville spokesperson Victoria Dunkle says it “keeps a normal stock of six to eight units per type with the exception of O-positive, which we try to keep at a minimum of eight units on hand at all times.” And Pardee UNC Health Care in Hendersonville maintains a maximum stock of 16 units of O-positive blood. Its minimum stock is 10 units, explains chief medical officer Dr. Gregory McCarty. “If you fell below that, you would consider it a shortage,” he explains.
The VA is also unique in that it can access an additional blood supply beyond The Blood Connection. Most VA medical centers use the same blood banks that local hospitals use, Ahsanuddin explains. However, there are federal options for VA. Charles George VA Medical Center has never needed to access that resource.
All local hospitals contacted by Xpress confirmed they’ve had no difficulties resupplying low inventory from The Blood Connection when needed.
McCarty says Pardee UNC Health Care had lower blood supplies during COVID. “We had maybe a little shortage of O and A-negative blood during the biggest spikes of COVID.” He described the lower supply as “a little bit below minimum stock for a short period of time, but for the most part, we have not experienced a shortage,” he says.
The Blood Connection has been able to get the Charles George VA Medical Center “everything we ask for typically within hours,” confirms Ahsanuddin. He adds, “Any delays from Blood Connection have typically been less than a day, even during the height of the pandemic.”
The VA has not had to reduce any planned surgeries because blood wasn’t available, Ahsanuddin says, adding that it also hasn’t run chronically low.
“Mission has experienced periodic shortages; however, we have been able to meet demand,” Nancy Lindell, spokesperson for Mission Health, tells Xpress in a statement.
Still, local hospitals have been cautious not to waste blood. The VA hospital refined its protocols to “make sure we’re using blood appropriately and not waste it,” Ahsanuddin says. And McCarty adds Pardee has tightened its criteria, too: It tries to order one unit at a time to “use the minimal amount of blood that we need,” he says.
If a school, business, residential complex or community group is interested in hosting a blood drive, The Blood Connection can be reached at 864-751-5003.
Lindell says Mission Health experiences a need for more blood during the summer and early fall “due to more people living or visiting here in those seasons.”
McCarty urges eligible blood donors to donate, and wants the community to know that blood drives take safety precautions for COVID. “I think [the blood supply level is] concerning and people need to get back out and donate,” he says. “I know that people have been reticent to do that during the pandemic, but we always have needs for blood.”
How to donate
The Blood Connection accepts donations from people ages 16 and older, and whole blood can be donated every 56 days. The Blood Connection’s Arden and Hendersonville centers are open Monday through Friday, 7 a.m.–6:30 p.m., and Saturday and Sunday, 7 a.m.–4:30 p.m. Drop-ins are welcome. For more information, or to make an appointment, visit thebloodconnection.org.