What's behind the current blood shortage? Here's what you need to know about this 'often-invisible emergency' — and how to help.

A red-and-black montage of blood-donation imagery, including a Donate Blood sign.
Experts say one way to mitigate the current blood donation shortage is to provide incentives for donors. (Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos: Getty Images) (Photo Illustration: Yahoo News; photos: Getty Image)

On Sept. 11, the American Red Cross declared a national blood shortage and reported that ongoing low blood supplies had dropped an additional 25% since the beginning of August.

Since making this announcement, the nonprofit organization has seen an increase in donations, yet in order to supply hospitals and patients around the country, an estimated total of 10,000 blood products must be received each week over the next month.

“The need for blood is constant,” stated the American Red Cross in an updated Sept. 20 press release. “Every two seconds, someone in the U.S. needs blood — an often-invisible emergency that the rest of the world doesn’t see.”

So what’s causing the current blood shortage? And who is most affected by this? Experts explain.

Why is there a blood shortage today?

Several factors are causing a shortage of blood supply, starting with the time of year. “The blood supply is impacted by seasonal shortages during peak holiday and travel seasons, including the summer and Labor Day weekend, which we are just coming out of,” Dr. Mark T. Friedman, pathologist and director of blood banking at NYU Langone Hospital-Long Island, tells Yahoo Life.

Extreme weather events and environmental conditions are playing a crucial role as well. “Hurricanes quickly use up supply while also canceling blood drives in those areas most impacted,” Dr. John Whyte, chief medical officer of WebMD and a former director at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, tells Yahoo Life.

Post-pandemic behavioral shifts have also made blood collection more challenging, says Dr. Ellen Klapper, director of transfusion medicine and professor of pathology and laboratory medicine at Cedars-Sinai in Los Angeles. “For example, a growing number of people have switched to working remotely, making them less available to participate in blood drives at their workplaces,” she tells Yahoo Life. Klapper adds that low turnout among young donors is another reason behind this crisis.

“Prior to the pandemic, blood collections from high schools and universities accounted for the largest percentage of yearly donations, but this trend was upended during the pandemic as schools adopted a remote learning model,” she continues.

Furthermore, hiring trained laboratory technologists to operate a blood donation site has turned into a national problem, Dr. Matthew Stark, director of transfusion services at Children’s Hospital New Orleans, tells Yahoo Life. “Opening and running a donor center — or a mobile donor center/bus — is a lot of work, and finding qualified people to run these establishments is becoming very challenging,” he says. “And it will get worse over the next five years.”

Who is affected by the blood shortage?

Whyte believes the public isn’t entirely aware of the ramifications a blood shortage can have on society.

“It impacts patients in immediate need of a blood transfusion, such as trauma patients and other emergency situations, as well as patients undergoing surgeries,” he says. People living with severe anemia or chronic blood loss, along with patients diagnosed with certain chronic medical conditions such as sickle cell disease or severe liver disease, may need a blood transfusion, he says.

Other patients who have the greatest need for a blood transfusion include those undergoing solid organ transplants or chemotherapy treatment for blood and solid organ malignancies such as leukemia or lymphoma, says Klapper. Infants born prematurely can be affected by the shortage as well.

“For a pediatric institution, we have neonates who cannot produce blood sufficient for their needs, while some of the neonates need their blood volume replaced for complicated medical reasons,” says Stark.

It’s important to mention that those with specific blood types who need an infusion could potentially be affected. “For example, the recently reported shortage from the New York Blood Center was more acute for certain products, types O-, O+, B- red blood cells and platelets of all types,” says Friedman.

How can blood shortages be prevented?

“I’m a firm believer that we need to reduce donation barriers,” says Whyte. He recommends that blood centers streamline the donation process, “such as minimizing waiting times, simplifying paperwork and providing comfortable donation environments,” as well as offering mobile blood donation units to reach communities that may have difficulty accessing donation centers.

“We also need to think about incentives,” he continues. “Show appreciation for donors by recognizing their contributions through certificates, thank-you notes or small incentives, like providing T-shirts or refreshments after donation.” Whyte suggests that blood banks consider donor loyalty programs that “reward regular donors with incentives or exclusive benefits.”

When it comes to community engagement, Friedman encourages the public to roll up their sleeves a few times a year. “It may be helpful to be conscious of seasonal patterns in blood shortages and make an effort to donate around holidays when shortages develop,” he says.

Who can give blood?

All blood donors must meet a few basic requirements. In order to be eligible to make a whole blood donation — the most flexible type of donation, which can be transfused in its original form or separated into components of red cells, plasma and platelets — a volunteer must be at least 16 years of age, weigh at least 110 pounds and be in good health on the day of the donation.

Other factors, including personal history, travel history and living with certain medical conditions, could affect eligibility.

Both Whyte and Friedman are hopeful that the Food and Drug Administration’s decision on May 11 to ease restrictions on gay and bisexual men donating blood will increase the number of volunteers.

How to help

Click here to find local blood drives and blood service centers offered by the American Red Cross. Also, nearby hospitals may be offering blood donor programs. For example, “Cedars-Sinai Blood Donor Services is ready to coordinate a community blood drive anywhere in Southern California,” says Klapper. “Just one blood donation can save up to three lives.”