Local blood supplies have reached critically low levels, creating a potential crisis with hospitals operating at maximum capacity, Inova Health Systems reports.
The dangers of this imbalance between supply and demand became painfully clear last week, when the nonprofit health care system drained its Type B supplies and had to switch to Type O blood in order to stabilize one patient, according to an Inova spokesperson, who described the current need for blood donors as “urgent.”
The patient suffered significant blood loss that triggered a massive transfusion protocol (MTP), requiring medical workers to literally run units of blood, plasma, and platelets from a blood bank to the emergency room, explains Heather Wade, the donor recruitment manager for Inova Blood Donor Services.
“As clinicians, we strive to provide patients with their blood type,” Wade said. “It’s a matter of overall safety, but when that supply has been diminished, we then need to revert to caring for the patient with Type O blood product.”
Inova is seeking donors of all blood types, but it is especially in need of Type B and O blood.
As of Thursday (Oct. 14), Inova was completely out of both B-negative and AB-negative blood, with just 10 of the 90 B-positive units needed in stock, according to its red blood cell inventory.
Supplies are low in part because Type B blood is rare, comprising only about 10% of the U.S. population, according to the American Red Cross.
Type O blood is particularly valuable, because O-negative can be used for all patients. O-positive blood can help about 84% of patients and is carried by Fairfax, Arlington, and Loudoun county emergency responders for on-site transfusions, Wade says.
Inova currently has just 46 available units of O-positive blood and 68 units of O-negative blood.
Wade says Inova needs about 200 blood donations per day to maintain a sufficient, stable inventory to support the 4.5 million people it serves in Northern Virginia, Maryland, and D.C..
“The actual donation takes 15 minutes, and it can save three lives in our community,” Wade said. “Whether you donated in Sterling and the patient’s in Alexandria, Virginia, you’re helping someone in our Northern Virginia area.”
Low blood supplies have been a challenge nationwide throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, with the Red Cross reporting in March 2020 that it lost roughly 46,000 donations due to a surge in blood drive cancellations.
The shortage prompted the Food and Drug Administration to ease its restrictions on donations from men who have sex with men (MSM), though advocates and some elected officials have challenged the continued existence of any restrictions as discriminatory.
“Inova supports lifting the federal restrictions on MSM blood donation,” spokesperson Tracy Connell said.
A year and a half later, the situation has seen little improvement. The Red Cross said on Sept. 27 that donor turnout levels hit a low for 2021, dropping the nonprofit’s blood supply to its lowest point for this time of the year since 2015.
According to Wade, Inova actually saw a “significant increase in engagement” from new and recurring donors after putting out alerts about the need for blood in the initial days of the pandemic, but donations subsequently declined. Supplies have now been at critically low levels since March.
By contrast, demand for blood has gone up as hospitals report an influx of patients even outside of coronavirus cases, a trend that led Inova to temporarily close some of its urgent care centers.
A census of Northern Virginia hospitals found that 90 to 100% of all beds for in-patient care have been filled, Wade says.
“Some people opted to delay treatment because of the pandemic, and the consequences have been that their treatment, which could’ve probably been less significant early on in the pandemic, has become more aggressive,” she said.
For those interested in donating, Inova has three brick-and-mortar donor centers in Centreville, Annandale, and Sterling, along with bloodmobiles that travel throughout the region. Community organizations can also volunteer to host blood drives.
Inova Blood Donor Services announced last week that it will have blood drives at four Fairfax County high schools this fall: Edison, Woodson, McLean, and Robinson Secondary.
Wade notes that Inova continues to implement disinfecting practices in line with FDA and Centers for Disease Control guidelines. Blood drive workers have also always used sterile, single-use supplies, and masks are still required for both employees and donors.
“If we’re not safe and they’re not safe, then how can we make sure that every patient that needs a blood transfusion [is safe]?” Wade said. “We have to make sure that it’s safe…It’s imperative to the health and well-being of our community.”
Photo via Inova Blood Donor Services/Facebook
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