The urgent American blood shortage, explained

Blood donation.
Blood donation. Illustrated | Getty Images

Blood banks across the United States are reporting critical shortages, with donor levels lower now than they were before the pandemic. It's critical that these blood banks have enough of a supply for local hospitals, which risk having to make hard choices about who receives immediate treatment and who must wait. Here's everything you need to know:

How much blood is needed in the United States on a daily basis?

The American Red Cross says that every two seconds, a person in the United States needs blood and/or platelets, making it vital to have a lot banked. Blood is needed for everything from surgeries to traumatic injuries to cancer and sickle cell disease treatments, with roughly 29,000 units of red blood cells, 5,000 units of platelets, and 6,500 units of plasma required on a daily basis. Blood and platelets cannot be made synthetically, making voluntary donations necessary.

Why are there blood shortages?

Every year, only 3 percent of Americans donate blood, and at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, that number plummeted. Blood drives at schools and clubs were canceled and donor centers were closed, and because of staffing troubles and rising costs, things still haven't gone back to normal. In January, the American Red Cross declared its first-ever blood crisis, after experiencing a 10 percent decline in the number of people donating.

About 60 percent of blood donations are from people who are 40 and older, and Katie Smithson with the Blood Connection told WBTV earlier this month that "we're losing donors quicker than we're gaining donors. Part of that is due in fact to COVID. When COVID hit and schools went virtual, whether it be high schools or colleges, we lost about 30 percent of our donor base because we used to go to these schools and we couldn't anymore because the kids weren't there."

What kind of blood donations are there?

There are a few different types of donations: whole blood, power red (a concentrated dose of red cells), platelet, and plasma. Whole blood — the blood that flows through the veins and contains red cells, white cells, and platelets suspended in plasma — is the "most flexible type of donation," the American Red Cross says. That's because it can be given as is in a transfusion, or separated into red cells, plasma, and platelets, which are distributed to multiple people. Whole blood can be donated as often as every 56 days, up to six times a year.

What are the requirements to give blood?

It depends on the type of blood donation, and each state has its own requirements when it comes to the minimum age to donate. For safety reasons, donors also have to meet height and weight requirements, to make sure their bodies can tolerate the removal of the required volume of blood.

What type of blood is most needed in the United States?

There are eight major blood types, with O positive being the most common. Over 80 percent of the U.S. population has a positive blood type, and since O positive red blood cells are compatible to all other red blood cells that are positive, it's the blood type given to more patients than any other, the American Red Cross says.

Just 7 percent of the population is O negative, the universal blood type. People who have O negative blood can only receive O negative blood, but because it's the most common blood type used during a transfusion when a patient's blood type is unknown, it's also the first blood supply to run out when there is a shortage.

What are some reasons why a person couldn't donate blood?

Blood donors must meet FDA eligibility criteria to donate blood, and go through a screening every time. People who are sick are not allowed to donate and are asked to come back 24 hours after their symptoms are gone. Those who have low iron are also unable to donate until they raise their levels. Donors will be asked whether they have recently lived or visited a malaria-risk country; if so, a waiting period to give blood is required. Those who have ever had Ebola are also not eligible to donate. People who are pregnant cannot donate, and are asked to wait until six weeks after giving birth.

Under current FDA guidance, a man who has had sex with another man in the past three months must wait for three months before donating. The American Red Cross says it recognizes "the hurt this policy has caused to many in the LGBTQ+ community and believes blood donation eligibility should not be determined by methods that are based upon sexual orientation. We are committed to working with partners toward achieving this goal."

I can't donate blood. How else can I help?

Support your local blood bank by becoming a volunteer — you could be asked to work at blood drives, schedule appointments, and hand out snacks to donors. Monetary donations are also extremely helpful and can be used for everything from upgrading storage facilities to paying for personal protective equipment for nurses. Business owners can also sign up to host blood drives and make a donation for every employee who gives blood.

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