By Steve Bagwell • Editorial Page Editor • 

National blood crisis demands Americans rise to the challenge


For Americans, COVID's global supply chain disruption had remained more abstraction or inconvenience than potentially life-threatening reality. But that all changed when blood, platelets and plasma were added to the roster of critically short commodities, thanks to COVID's rampaging Omicron variant.

Modern medicine has worked many wonders, but has found no substitute for fresh blood and components from healthy donors. David Irving of the Australian Red Cross posed the problem this way:

"Blood is like milk, not toilet paper. You can't just buy a lot of it and save it for later. You need to have a regular fresh supply for patients who need it."

Overall, America needs 36,000 units of whole blood, 7,000 units of platelets and 10,000 units of plasma every day. Plasma can be kept in cold storage for up to a year, but platelets only last five days and red blood cells 42.

The U.S. normally keeps a five-day supply on hand, but is now down to a critically low one day. It is particularly short of the most common red blood type (O positive, shared by 38% percent of the population); the only red blood type suitable for universal application in a pinch (Type O negative); and platelets (an utter necessity in modern cancer treatment).

In the interest of donor and recipient safety, the Red Cross won't accept blood from people who: have recently given previously; have tested positive for COVID or come into contact with someone who has; take blood thinners, suffer from flu-like symptoms or recently traveled to malaria-prone parts of the world; don't meet minimum age and weight requirements; are sexually active gay or bisexual males, or in preventive or active HIV treatment; or recently underwent certain types of vaccinations other than Pfizer or Moderna COVID.

That may seem like a narrow list of exclusions, but according to Anna Nagurney of the University of Massachusetts, it eliminates 62% of the population at any given time. What's more, she says less than one third of eligible Americans donate in the best of times, and these are nowhere near the best.

COVID is transmitted through the respiratory system, and donated blood is rigorously screened for HIV, Hepatitis and a long list of other problem agents. That being the case, LGBTQ advocates urge dropping the active gay and bi ban, which studies show would generate 345,000 to 615,000 additional pints per year.

The prevailing counter-argument is this: No one on the receiving end wants to take chances, and collecting blood that can't be used represents waste the system can't afford. But other nations have made the move, including neighboring Canada.

High school and college students normally account for about 25% of donors, but school blood drives have dropped off by almost two-thirds since the pandemic set in. Illness among both staffers and donors have curtailed many drives, and weather events have canceled others.

The raging invasion of the highly contagious Omicron variant, coupled with the onset of an active flu season, have really brought things to a head. The chain of events has left the American Red Cross facing its first national blood crisis in more than a decade.

So how can you help?

If you meet the requirements, you can sign up on the Red Cross website to donate blood. If not, you can sign up to help staff a blood drive, as staffers are in almost as much demand as donors. Additionally or alternatively, you can pony up some money, which is what keeps the wheels turning.



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