PROVIDENCE — The supply of blood in Rhode Island is running critically low. Would-be donors are making fewer appointments, and more of them are being cancelled. Doctors have already had to shift to accommodate for dwindling supplies, and some are concerned about what could happen if things get even worse.
The start of the COVID-19 pandemic a year and a half ago sparked fears that the blood supply in the state, a critical need for everyone from babies in the NICU to accident victims in the emergency department, would run low.
But even as the pandemic wanes, the shortages are worse than they’ve ever been.
“We need people to step up and help us help the patients that are relying on us,” said Nicole Pineault, the Rhode Island Blood Center’s director of donor resources and the marrow donor program. “We need their help.”
The Rhode Island Blood Center on Monday called a “blood emergency” to address the problem, which is also playing out nationally. The center said it normally tries to have a seven-day supplyof blood on hand. It currently has three days for all blood types, and just one day for type O bloods, which include the most common, O-positive, and the universal donor type, O-negative. They’re collecting about 200 fewer units of blood a week compared to pre-pandemic, a significant decline from the goal of 1,500. The center provides blood for most of the hospitals in the state.
The blood center has six locations in the state where people can donate blood; appointments can be made online or by phone at (401) 453-8383. The center also has mobile blood drives, but those aren’t as frequent because of limitations on in-person activities at schools — which make up about 30 percent of collections a year — and businesses.
Even at the six fixed sites throughout the state, appointments aren’t filling up as quickly and, even when they’re made, more people are no-shows. People are getting back to their routines and everyday lives as the pandemic fades in Rhode Island, which means donating blood is taking a back seat. Blood use at hospitals is also on the rise as people start getting medical care they’d put off during the pandemic.
“It’s not just about giving a donation now, because people are hearing about the increased need,” Pineault said. “It’s about trying to think of this as something you’re going to continue to do at some frequency to kind of help us. The need is there, every day.”
People who take an authorized COVID-19 vaccine are eligible to give blood, and don’t have a waiting period as long as they’re feeling well, Pineault said.
The center just started a new marketing campaign to try to get the word out to younger people about donating blood, with some meme-friendly content about things that are more painful than donating blood. Such as running into your ex with spinach in your teeth. Or cracking your cellphone screen. Or, in a Rhode Island twist, learning how to pronounce quahog (KO-hog is common, but you’ll also hear people say something closer to KWA-hog).
The emergency affecting area hospitals. The supply of blood at Rhode Island Hospital in Providence, the area’s only level one trauma center, is half of what it normally is. That might not sound that bad, but consider: Just one serious trauma patient could need the entire supply that’s left.
It hasn’t come to that yet, but doctors like Dr. Stephanie Lueckel, a trauma surgeon there, are fearful of the possibility of running out of blood, and having patients bleed to death inside a hospital.
“It seems senseless,” Lueckel said. “Of all the advances we’ve made in medicine, it seems ridiculous that a patient could bleed to death because of a lack of blood.”
Supplies are low enough, Lueckel said, that doctors now are pausing before transfusing blood to consider whether a patient really needs it.
Lueckel works in trauma, but it’s also an issue for people with diseases like cancer or sickle-cell anemia.
She donated red blood cells on Friday in South County. The experience was “lovely,” she said, 15 minutes of peace and quiet where the busy trauma surgeon and mother of three got to kick back, then have someone bring her a cookie.
“This is a fixable problem,” Lueckel said.