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America’s blood supply is in crisis. Here’s how school blood drives can help

A nurse fills test tubes with blood to be tested during an American Red Cross bloodmobile in Fullerton, CA, in 2022.
Paul Bersebach/MediaNews Group/Orange County Register/Getty Images
A nurse fills test tubes with blood to be tested during an American Red Cross bloodmobile in Fullerton, CA, in 2022.

By Amanda Musa, CNN

(CNN) — After declaring a national blood shortage and announcing that the United States’ blood supply has fallen to “critically low levels,” the American Red Cross is urging high schools to bring back blood drives.

The nonprofit, which provides about 40% of the nation’s blood and blood components, says the distribution of blood products to hospitals is outpacing the number of donations. Since early August, there has been a nearly 25% decline in donations, it says.

The Red Cross pointed to “back-to-back months of worsening climate-driven disasters,” resulting in the cancellation of some blood drives, and a busy travel season straining the blood supply.

“Typically, during the summertime and around the winter holidays – and just after the holidays – most blood collectors see a dip in blood donations,” said April Phillips, a spokesperson for the American Red Cross.

Although this midyear dip in donations is not unusual, Phillips says another major factor behind the shortage is fewer blood drives being hosted at educational facilities like high schools and colleges.

The impact of school blood drives

In 2019, more than 4 million people received red blood cell transfusions in the United States, according to data collected by America’s Blood Centers.

And the need is constant: Blood transfusions happen every day in maternity, pediatric and trauma care.

Because red blood cells have a shelf life of only 42 days, a week’s supply of donated blood is ideal. Most banks have been making do throughout the pandemic with a three- to five-day supply.

Before the Covid-19 pandemic, about 25% of donations collected by the Red Cross came from school blood drives, Phillips says.

“Since the pandemic, that number … it’s lower,” she said. “It dropped down to 10% at one point. Now we’re back up to about 20%.”

The Red Cross is hoping to gain back that 5%, which represents thousands of donors lost.

Other large blood donation organizations say they are not experiencing a shortage but agree that the dip in blood drives hosted at schools is taking a toll on the stability of America’s blood supply.

Andrea Cefarelli, senior vice president of New York Blood Center Enterprises, says that before the Covid-19 pandemic, almost every high school in the US hosted one to four blood drives a year. That simply isn’t the case anymore, and her organization has seen a 50% decline in youth donors.

“Schools have not returned to hosting blood drives the way they did pre-pandemic,” she said. “In the New York area alone, we used to work with 500 individual high schools. We’re contacting each and every one of them, begging them to return to having student blood drives.”

Before the pandemic, the New York Blood Center also received 25% of its donations from youth donors: people ages 16 to 23, who are in high school and college.

“We’ve recovered maybe about 10% of that,” Cefarelli said. “We’re hoping this school year that a lot of the schools will return to hosting drives.”

Some schools have been especially important to the collection of blood throughout the years, according to Cefarelli, who noted that one in particular ran a 300-pint blood drive twice a year.

“They were always training the freshmen and sophomores to take over for the juniors and seniors as they graduated,” she said. But that school has not returned to hosting blood drives.

The New York Blood Center and the Red Cross both say they are working with their education partners to return to the level of blood donations seen prior to the pandemic.

Another group, Blood Centers of America, says it is meeting local demand, but Executive Vice President Jenny Ficenec says she is concerned about sustaining the blood supply, as fewer people donate each year.

The majority of people who donate blood to Blood Centers of America are older adults, Ficenec says. Over the past 10 years, her organization has seen a 47% decline in donors under 30.

“What we’re more focused on is long-term sustainability,” Ficenec previously told CNN. “Less than 20% of blood donations come from 20- to 34-year-olds, and over 45% of blood donations come from donors over 50.”

Young donors take initiative

A shortage of blood threatens the medical care of people who might have an emergency need for blood or those who depend on lifesaving transfusions for conditions such as cancer or sickle cell disease.

In the United States, someone needs blood or platelets every 2 seconds, the Red Cross says. But only about 3% of age-eligible people donate blood every year, according to the organization.

Most people can start donating blood when they are 17. In certain states, 16-year-olds can donate with permission from a parent or guardian.

That’s how old Maria Gonzalez and Kai Meier were when they donated blood for the first time in February during a blood drive at their school, The Mount Academy, just north of Poughkeepsie, New York.

“It was really exciting to see lots of people walking down the halls and all supporting the same cause,” Maria said. “It felt really good to be doing something for other people.”

The drive, supported by the New York Blood Center, was organized by Mount Academy students in honor of a classmate who has sickle cell disease, a group of inherited red blood cell disorders mostly commonly found in Black people.

Red blood cells contain hemoglobin, a protein that carries oxygen. In most people, red blood cells are round and move easily through small blood vessels to carry oxygen to all parts of the body.

But in someone who has sickle cell disease, the hemoglobin is abnormal, which causes the red blood cells to become hard and sticky, with a sickled shape. Sickle cells also die early, which causes a constant shortage of red blood cells and therefore a constant need for blood transfusions.

“Our school … we sort of stick up for each other, so if one of our students needs help, we will definitely support the cause for him,” Kai said.

The school’s business administrator, Leo Zimmerman, says the blood drive exceeded all expectations, collecting donations from over 80 people, including faculty, staff and 33 students who were old enough to donate.

After the drive’s success, Zimmerman says the school plans to host two more events during the 2023-24 school year.

People can donate blood every eight weeks, about 56 days, according to the US Department of Health and Human Services. Platelets can be donated every seven days, up to 24 times a year.

“One of the pillars of our school is teaching our students service to others, and so we definitely plan to continue this. We may even go up to three a year,” he said.

Several Mount Academy students, including Kai, have already become repeat donors, Zimmerman says.

The nation’s supply relies on a consistent flow of first-time blood donors. And a majority of people donate blood for the first time in a school setting, Cefarelli says.

“It’s not just having about their donation today, but it’s turning them into a potential blood donor for their lifetime,” she said. “It’s a lot more fun to get out of chemistry and donate blood with your friends in the gym and play hooky.”

CNN’s Jacqueline Howard contributed to this report.

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