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The American Red Cross and the medical facilities it supplies are experiencing a massive blood shortage as an “unprecedented” number of blood drives have been canceled regionally and across the country, as workplaces and schools have closed due to the coronavirus outbreak.

The shortage means local hospitals are working to conserve the blood supplies they do have.

In Southeastern Pennsylvania, South Jersey, and Delaware, more than 200 blood drives have been canceled over the last eight days, resulting in a shortfall of more than 7,000 donations, said Alana Mauger, communications manager for Red Cross Blood Services for the Penn Jersey region. To meet regional hospital demand, the Red Cross must collect about 600 blood donations daily.

As the pandemic has grown, shutting down workplaces, schools, and public places, 4,000 drives have been canceled nationally, leaving more than 100,000 expected blood donations uncollected.

Local officials have asked those who are healthy to donate blood as soon as they are able. Pennsylvania Secretary of Health Rachel Levine on Tuesday urged blood donation as she announced the number of positive cases of the novel coronavirus in Pennsylvania had reached about 100, although experts believe the true number of those infected is likely much higher.

Don Siegel, director of the division of transfusion medicine at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania, is asking clinicians to “be on the conservative side” when placing orders for blood transfusions. For example, if they normally order two bags, they’re being asked to order one and, see how it goes, and if they need another bag, they will get one.

He said the halting of elective surgery is also helping conserve the blood supply, which he described as “not at a critical level at this point.”

“There are shortages of blood that occur regularly throughout the year,” he said. “This is particularly bad" because many potential donors over the last week did not understand that blood drives are “essential” operations. “What we and others are doing is conserving what we have, eliminating the need by putting off nonessential patient procedures.”

Officials in Jefferson’s network are taking similar steps. Julie Karp, medical director at Jefferson’s blood bank, said “the blood supply is a moving target, more so now than ever before." She and her staff are making a concerted effort to talk through nearly every blood order with clinicians to ensure waste is “as close to zero as humanly possible.”

Karp also said Jefferson’s in-house blood donation center had seen an uptick over the last week or so. Many of its regular donors are Jefferson students and staff who understand “the importance to really step up when things like this happen.”

Siegel said he’s working with the Red Cross to set up a drive near the hospital in the coming days and hopes to make it a weekly occurrence.

A blood donation at the American Red Cross donation center.
TYGER WILLIAMS / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER
A blood donation at the American Red Cross donation center.

About 80% of the blood the Red Cross collects comes from drives, as opposed to individual appointments at collection centers, of which there are six in the region.

“I don’t think we’re ever going to get to a point where we can make up for all that 80%,” Mauger said, “but we’re certainly trying to chip away at it.”

Mauger said the Red Cross is still operating blood drives and has the ability to conduct them while following social distancing guidelines from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, so any entity with the ability to host a drive should reach out, she said.

The Red Cross has implemented additional precautions, including taking the temperature of all staff and donors and asking every donor to use provided hand sanitizer before they enter the drive and while the donation process is ongoing. They’re also spacing donation cots farther apart.

Mauger said donors who have traveled to China, Italy, Iran, or South Korea should defer their donation for 28 days after arriving home. She also said anyone who has come into contact with somebody who has the virus should similarly defer donation for 28 days even if they are not showing symptoms.

The Red Cross doesn’t have guidance on whether to wear gloves or a mask, but Mauger said donors would need to remove those items to have their temperature taken and finger pricked.