Periodically, we all see coverage on the news about a blood supply shortage, sometimes of a specific type – but sometimes all types and products are in demand. You may have heard things like “red alert” for a certain blood type. This refers to the system used by the American Red Cross to notify the public of shortages by blood type – green (adequate), yellow (shortage) and red (severe). Transfusion of blood products is critical for cancer patients, sickle-cell patients, accident victims, and others who experience life-threatening needs – which makes a blood shortage scary and concerning for both patients and clinicians. 

What Causes a Blood Shortage

When the demand for blood for treatment of serious injuries and illnesses is greater than the supply of blood that people are donating, a blood shortage occurs. Shortages may be national or regional in nature. 

Regional causes for a temporary blood shortage might be a mass trauma event, such as a shooting or a train accident. In that situation of heightened demand, hundreds of units of whole blood can be used very quickly. In times like this, hospitals and blood banks may work together to source blood from other regions or states and have donations flown in. 

National blood shortages are even more difficult to manage. For example, during the COVID-19 pandemic the nation faced a shortage as need increased and donations fell off because of illness and canceled blood drives. People who usually donated were staying at home, exacerbating the problem. 

After the acute phase of the pandemic ended, elective surgeries and other care rose quickly as recovery began. This caused yet another period of shortage as already strained resources tried to cover the new need. At this point, the need was so great that some hospitals postponed elective surgeries until the supply rebounded somewhat. 

On June 23, 2021, the NY Times reported:

“The Red Cross is currently experiencing a very severe blood shortage. We can’t do it without donors. Every two seconds, someone in the U.S. needs blood.”

Communities Must Work Together

Blood banks usually have a limited supply of blood products, and it can be difficult to meet the demand during these events. In such cases, hospitals and blood banks work together to manage the situation.

One way to handle a blood shortage is to prioritize the use of blood products for patients who need them most urgently. This means that patients with life-threatening injuries or illnesses are given priority over those who are stable or have less severe conditions.

Another way to manage a blood shortage is to ask people to donate blood. Blood drives can be organized in the affected area or in nearby regions to encourage people to donate blood. This can help increase the supply of blood products and ensure that there is enough blood available for those who need it.

Karen Stockdale, RN, has more than 20 years experience in healthcare. She is also a medical and technical writer and editor.