By The Herald Editorial Board
For the life-sustaining blood that is needed in the Northwest — for emergency room traumas, surgeries, cancer treatment and other needs — those donations must come in as quickly as they go out.
They don’t always, said Dr. Kirsten Alcorn, co-chief medical officer for Bloodworks Northwest, a leading nonprofit organization that provides blood, platelets and other blood components to 95 percent of the hospitals in the Pacific Northwest.
For the region, which extends along the I-5 corridor from Bellingham to Eugene, Ore, it takes about 1,000 units of blood donated each day to supply that need.
“If we need 1,000 donors a day to keep going and we only get 500, that means 500 units are going to come out of the existing inventory to make up for that,” Alcorn said in an interview this week.
And with a limited “shelf life” for whole blood of six weeks, but only seven days for platelets, it doesn’t take too many days of lower-than-necessary donations to begin depleting the inventory and triggering a shortage that can result in treatment delays for patients.
Those periodic shortages came more frequently during the covid pandemic, in part because donation centers such as Bloodworks — formerly known as the Puget Sound Blood Center — had to adapt to social distancing requirements, Alcorn said.
The organization, for example, had to pull back its use of its mobile blood donation buses, in favor of fewer “pop-up” blood drives, but the effect — in tandem with regular donors getting out of the habit of regular donations during the pandemic — meant a lingering drop in donations.
“Our blood supply really depended on people showing up at those mobile blood drives,” she said, because it made donation quicker and easier for most donors.
Fortunately, those buses are returning to schools, stores and company parking lots. Still, donations had started to tail off in recent years even before the pandemic, Alcorn said.
The American blood donor population has aged and its numbers have decreased in recent years, and have not been replaced sufficiently by younger donors.
“We really need to bring up the lower age ranks and get them in the habit of donating blood, or it’s simply not going to be there,” Alcorn said.
Bloodworks has 12 donation centers in the region, including two in Snohomish County; one in downtown Everett and another in Lynnwood. Or prospective donors can find a mobile blood drive by using the organization’s website, www.bloodworksnw.org; 10 mobile blood drives are planned at locations in Everett, Edmonds, Snohomish and elsewhere in the county through June.
At the same time, the American Red Cross Blood Services has appointment times available for blood drives in the county for June and July.
The typical donation of whole blood takes about 20 minutes to a half-hour, but donors also can donate plasma or platelets, a crucial component needed to control bleeding and of particular importance in cancer treatment, surgeries and bleeding disorders. Those with blood types of O-positive, O-negative, A-negative and B-negative can also make a “super reds” donation, which uses apheresis to remove red blood cells and return the plasma and platelets to the donor, but allows for twice the number of red blood cells to be collected, doubling the donation.
On top of the general need, the demand for blood and other components increases in the summer months, Alcorn said, with a seasonal increase in vehicle wrecks, accidental traumas and even injuries such as gunshot wounds. All depending on voluntary blood donations.
“It’s sad to me to think about potentially not being there for patients,” Alcorn said.
Imagine being a cancer patient, she said, whose treatment relies on medications and procedures, but also is dependent on a reliable supply of blood.
“It’s not like a five or seven day course of antibiotics. It is a months-long course of treatment for some people, and it can be pretty heartbreaking to get going on that treatment plan and then they find out that the supplies don’t exist to finish the treatment. You can imagine how fearful that will leave patients,” she said.