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Red Cross declares a 'blood crisis' as supply runs out at hospitals and blood banks

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Since the beginning of the pandemic, fewer people have donated blood. That's led to a shortage that the American Red Cross is now calling a blood crisis. It's especially a problem in rural parts of the country. Montana Public Radio's Aaron Bolton has more.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: All right. Give me those few good squeezes and hold tight on three.

AARON BOLTON, BYLINE: Thirty-one-year-old Tessa Burns is donating blood at an American Red Cross drive in Columbia Falls, Mont.

TESSA BURNS: I have O-positive, so it's really good blood to give to people.

BOLTON: There have been fewer donors like Burns showing up at blood drives since the pandemic started, says American Red Cross spokesperson Matt Ochsner.

MATT OCHSNER: We're seeing our worst blood shortage in over a decade.

BOLTON: Ochsner says staffing has also been a problem for the Red Cross, and there have been fewer opportunities to put on blood drives.

OCHSNER: Just for example, we've seen our blood donations that we collected at schools and universities in the past year drop by about 62%, and that's largely because of the challenges of COVID.

BOLTON: That's why, for the first time, the Red Cross has declared a blood crisis. The Blood Centers of America and others also say they are grappling with a major supply shortage. Claudia Cohn is the chief medical officer for the Association for the Advancement of Blood and Biotherapies. Cohn says the supply issue is really bad nationwide.

CLAUDIA COHN: We gauge the level of blood by the number of days of inventory on the shelf. When COVID started hitting and hurting, it was we went down to a three-day supply. We are now seeing a lot of blood centers at a one-day supply of blood.

BOLTON: Cohn says that means many areas of the country could be one trauma patient away from running out. A Los Angeles trauma center already shut down earlier this month for a couple of hours while it waited for an emergency blood delivery.

COHN: It is certain that if this trend continues, that we will see patients affected, that patients could die.

BOLTON: Running out of blood supply in rural areas like Montana can be an even scarier proposition. Beth Hock is the chief nursing officer at Providence St. Patrick Hospital in Missoula. She says there is a local blood bank to call on if the hospital runs out of a particular blood type, but they may not always have supply. The next option is hours away.

BETH HOCK: We've had some close calls because of trauma and surgeries. What will happen if that occurs is you have to stop surgeries.

BOLTON: Hospitals across the country are evaluating whether to delay elective procedures that require blood products in order to conserve supply for people who need regular transfusions like cancer patients, says Akin Demehin with the American Hospital Association.

AKIN DEMEHIN: It's hard to say exactly when we might see an improvement, but getting the word out and encouraging people to donate is really that first step.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: All right. You're cruising - over 100%.

BURNS: Nice.

BOLTON: Back in Columbia Falls, Tessa Burns says she wants to be a part of the solution.

BURNS: So in about another eight weeks, I'll do it again.

BOLTON: Blood centers and hospitals say people need to make blood donation a regular part of their lives in order to avoid another crisis.

For NPR News, I'm Aaron Bolton in Columbia Falls, Mont.

(SOUNDBITE OF MULTA NOX'S "A PEARL ON THE BACK OF THE LID") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.