Hospitals face blood shortages amid omicron surge

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The U.S. medical system is grappling with a national blood shortage as the omicron surge hampers its ability to collect blood from donors at workplaces and college campuses.

The American Red Cross, which provides 40 percent of the nation’s blood, says supplies have reached dangerously low levels, which means some hospitals have to delay surgeries because they don’t have enough blood on hand.

Blood collection agencies and hospital officials say it’s facing the worst shortage in more than a decade after blood donations dropped 10 percent since the start of the pandemic.

"The Red Cross is facing a national blood shortage, which means we have, in some instances, less than a day’s supply of blood on hand. And this is a critical situation because it is forcing doctors to make a very difficult decision about who receives a blood transfusion and who must wait until there are additional products available," said Red Cross spokeswoman Cari Dighton.

The Red Cross and other agencies rely heavily on blood drives hosted by employers and colleges, but many collection events were canceled because of pandemic closures. College students made up 25 percent of donors in 2019, but just 10 percent in 2021, according to the Red Cross.

The omicron surge that began in the U.S. in December has led to staff shortages, blood drive cancellations and fewer donations as donors stay home or get sick with Covid-19, officials say.

Blood donations have picked up since the Red Cross declared a "national blood crisis" in mid-January, but there are still critical shortages that will take months to address, officials say.

"People are beginning to step forward, but this is a long term problem that that we will need help with over many, many months, in part because the demand for surgery continues to be high right now," said Nancy Foster, vice president of the American Hospital Association.

Angel Carney rode her bike to the Red Cross’ San Francisco blood center to donate blood, which took about 10 minutes. She had been a regular donor, but her donations dropped off after the pandemic began.

"If you look around here, there’s like nobody here today either, so there’s a lot of empty beds," Carney said. "Now that everything’s starting to become the new normal, it’s pretty easy to go on the app to book an appointment, find a place that is close to you and just do it."

Dan Ngo, who previously donated blood or platelets every six to eight weeks, came to the Red Cross blood center to donate for the first time since the pandemic began.

Ngo watched Netflix on a television at the foot of his bed while a machine extracted platelets from his bed. Donations of platelets, tiny blood cells that stop bleeding, takes up to three hours.

"It’s one of the things that you can do to really help people. And it doesn’t really cost you a lot," Ngo said. "You know, you sit here for an hour or two and then afterwards you go home knowing that you could have potentially saved a life."