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Wellness Wednesday

The urgent need for blood donations

"This has been probably the worst shortage I've seen in my 20-plus years of being with the Red Cross," says Dr. David Mair.
"This has been probably the worst shortage I've seen in my 20-plus years of being with the Red Cross," says Dr. David Mair.Brigitte Johnston for the Armed Services Blood Program
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by Jill Riley

December 01, 2021

As the nation returns to in-person workplaces and kids go back to school amid a surge in Covid-19 cases, the American Red Cross is facing an emergency blood and platelet shortage. Dr. David Mair is a divisional chief medical officer with the American Red Cross.

Jill Riley: How serious is the need right now?

David Mair: Very serious. This is a national shortage, impacting other blood centers as well, but in particular, the Red Cross. Since the pandemic, when hospitals were kind of delaying therapies and so forth, we've seen a dramatic pickup now now that we're coming out of the pandemic, and the need for blood is outpacing the ability for people to donate and for us to collect. And in particular, for Type O blood, which can be given to people of other blood groups. This is the most needed blood group of hospitals; we need all blood types, but in particular, Type O for red cells. And of course, platelets are needed, since they have such a short shelf life. So this has been probably the worst shortage I've seen in my 20-plus years of being with the Red Cross.

Who do you encourage to donate? What does it take to be eligible to donate blood, for anyone who's never done it before?

Anybody who's 17 years of age, or older - or 16 with parental consent in many states - and weigh at least 110 pounds and are in general good health are eligible to donate. But in particular, one of the groups that we are really trying to get the come out and donate or are people of color. The reason for that is that certain diseases, like sickle cell disease, tend to impact people of certain ethnicities. African Americans like myself, we need better matches than just a positive or negative. There are other substances than red cells that come into play just for these diseases, where the person needs transfusions to survive, and new transfusions for their entire life. So it goes beyond just the O negative and B positive, there are other substances that need to be matched. And you're more likely to get those matches within your ethnic group; [they’re] not impossible to get outside of your ethnic group, that does occur, but just more likely and faster, especially when these patients are particularly ill. So we're really encouraging people of color to come out and donate and declare their ethnicity, because that also means we can screen those units of blood for these other substances.

Well, that's really good to know. Has COVID changed anything in terms of eligibility or the donation process?

Well, it has changed the donation process. One of the things that it has done is, of course, we have what I would like to refer to as Covid safe blood drives now - where we're doing special cleaning, everybody's masked, etc. - to make sure it's the safest environment possible for our blood donors. Of course, people always had to be healthy, but with those measures that we've put in place, I would venture to say that people are probably safer at a Red Cross blood drive than they are going to their own grocery store. I think the donors have been responding and coming out since we put these precautions in place. Like I said, we just can't keep the blood on the shelf because of the increased demand.

How much impact can one donor make?

Well, every unit is important. You have an accident and victims who may come in the door who potentially could need 100 units of blood and each individual unit to match their specific needs is another important one for that individual - or for platelets, they're frequently used for cancer patients who after their chemotherapy treatments, their bone marrows aren’t working as well, and they can't make their own platelets, which puts them at risk for bleeding. So every unit has a significant impact on somebody's life.

What does the donation process look like? Can you just to kind of take us through what it looks like when you show up to give blood and what it looks like when you leave the door?

The day you come in to donate, you kind of get a brief health history and you get a mini physical: blood pressure, pulse, that kind of thing all gets checked. A lot of the history can be obtained in advance now, which helps to streamline the process. All told, the blood donation process between the screening may take up to an hour, but the actual donation itself takes less than 10 minutes. And once you’re done, you get to enjoy some refreshments.

I was worried about that - with the Covid safe environment, do we still get juice and a cookie at the end? Now, where can people learn more or sign up to donate?

Our website is In addition to the app, and also people can call 1-800-RED-CROSS for appointments as well.

Every Wednesday morning at 8:30 CST, Jill Riley connects with experts and local personalities for some real talk about keeping our minds and bodies healthy — from staying safe in the music scene, to exercising during a pandemic, to voting and civic engagement. Looking for more resources and support? Visit our friends at Call to Mind, MPR's initiative to foster new conversations about mental health. Subscribe to Wellness Wednesday as a podcast on SpotifyAppleRSSRadio PublicStitcher, or Amazon Music.

Wellness Wednesday is hosted by Jill Riley, and produced by Christy Taylor and Jay Gabler. Our theme music is a portion of the song "F.B. One Number 2" by Christian Bjoerklund under the Non Commercial Share Alike 3.0 International License.