Red Cross declared a national blood shortage in January, as donations fell as much as 10%. Knoxville-based nonprofit Medic Regional Blood Center has faced similar problems in East Tennessee over the last two years with a noticeable drop in blood donations compared with previous years.
Medic Regional Blood Center is an independent not-for-profit blood donation center and, according to its website, the “only U.S. blood center with a program to cover members’ blood supplier processing fees “at any hospital in the country.
“What we saw initially in the pandemic was not only did we lose a lot of blood drives – somewhere like 137 canceled in a 36 hour period – but then the hospitals cut back on all of their elective surgeries,” said Kristy Altman, director of communications and public relations at Medic in Knoxville. “So we went from needing 200 units a day to needing very little blood because they just weren’t doing those ongoing surgeries where they needed the ongoing products,” she said about the initial issues faced during the pandemic.
“Then, they reinstated the surgeries and so the need went back up while everyone else was still being asked to stay home and that’s where the challenge started,” she continued. “How do you get people to leave their homes when they’re being asked to stay there, and then come and donate blood?”
The Red Cross said they’ve had a 62% drop in college and high school blood drives, a situation that Altman said Medic has also faced.
Medic relies on regular donors who have still been willing to come donate even throughout the turbulent last two years. Donations have risen almost to pre-pandemic levels over the past six months.
“But we still struggle with new donors because they didn’t go out of their houses for two years; it’s not something they were familiar with, or they were out of regular routines,” Altman said.
Altman believes that it will take another six to 12 months before numbers are back to where they were in 2018 or 2019. “Even before that, the national trend had been a decline in donors from about 2016, it’s just been steadily decreasing the last few years. So certainly the pandemic put a bigger gap into that,” she said.
“Honestly, I think it’s a lack of education,” Altman said about the decline in blood donations since 2016. “Some folks are lucky that in their high school or their college years, they are introduced to blood donation, they get to know about it early, they aren’t as scared of it.” She believes that education is the best way to gain more donors.
That it’s hard to find younger donors is not surprising, if Medic’s numbers are similar to those noticed by Red Cross. Red Cross said that student donors accounted for 25% of their donors in 2019, but that number dropped to only 10% during the pandemic starting in 2020.
Bigger events, according to Altman, can help drive up donations. . “We have an event in three weeks [that] will be a pretty good indicator of what this year will look like.”
The event in question is Parrothead, which Altman said originally began a few years back as a one-day-long ‘Cheeseburgers in Paradise’-themed event. It was successful enough that over time, it became a week-long event. It is designed to “spoil the donors a little bit,” according to Altman, with cooking and live music at one of Medic’s centers every single day, and special-edition T-shirts available for those who donate. “We make it a big party atmosphere,” Altman said.
This year, the event begins on May 23 and runs through that week, with different events at each of Medic’s East Tennessee locations.
“Interestingly enough, local hospitals are using more blood than ever, so our demand is going up, so we’re going to have to meet that with the donors that live in this area,” Altman said. The increasing need for blood only makes it that much more important to gain and retain new donors.