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A blood shortage is contributing to Idaho's crisis standards of care

A woman in a white shirt and jeans sits in a black medical chair while she gives blood. A Red Cross employee in red scrubs talks to her.
A person donates blood with the Red Cross in Arizona, April 2020.

A shortage of blood is one reason why a major medical system in Idaho requested a return to crisis standards of care.

The American Red Cross declared its first-ever national blood crisis due to the omicron surge earlier this month. And it’s affecting Idaho, where the Red Cross delivers blood to more than 30 hospitals and medical centers.

People who would typically donate blood are, perhaps, not making or showing up to appointments because of fear of catching COVID-19, or because they're sick themselves, said Matt Ochsner, the regional communications director for the Red Cross in Idaho and Montana.

The Red Cross is also dealing with staff absences due to illness, which affects everything from the donation sites to the transportation of the supply to medical facilities.

“We’re having to cancel some blood drives because donors are out sick, or maybe staff are out sick, or the organization where we’re hosting the blood drive just doesn’t feel comfortable hosting a drive-in COVID conditions," said Ochsner.

He said nationwide and in Idaho, the Red Cross is collecting less blood at colleges and universities due to COVID-19 precautions.

The Red Cross likes to keep a five-day supply of Type O blood on hand (O negative is the universal blood type and good for emergencies, and O positive is the most common one). Right now, it has closer to a one-day supply in Idaho.

The blood shortage contributed to Saint Alphonsus Health System's request to return to crisis standards of care because the hospital has had to implement a blood conservation strategy.

Now doctors aren’t able to give blood transfusions at will, said Dr. Steven Nemerson, the chief clinical officer for Saint Alphonsus during a media briefing Tuesday.

“Our blood bank itself is now interacting to determine whether it meets very, very stringent and somewhat restrictive criteria," he said.

Saint Alphonsus's regional medical center in Boise is a level II trauma center, which means patients arriving there could require a large supply of blood on short notice.

"One major trauma can require an enormous amount of blood, and very quickly go from what seems like a reasonable supply or inventory that we've got to a crisis level of needing to ration immediately," Nemerson said. "And it's entirely unpredictable."

The health system could need to limit the amount of blood people receive based on their illness and condition and that could affect patients in for trauma, but also cancer treatments or even labor and delivery.

"That rationing hasn't happened yet, but we fear that it will," Nemerson said. "And that's one of the reasons we appealed for crisis standards."

Find locations to donate blood near you: https://www.redcrossblood.org/give.html/find-drive

Find reporter Rachel Cohen on Twitter @racheld_cohen

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As the south-central Idaho reporter, I cover the Magic and Wood River valleys. I also enjoy writing about issues related to health and the environment.

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