One of Colorado’s largest blood collectors saw its supply drop by half this summer, worsening a pandemic-induced shortfall.

Brooke Way, communications manager for Vitalant’s Colorado blood centers, said there’s been a shortage for some time now as COVID-19 outbreaks canceled blood drives, but it’s become an “emergency” this summer with the usual summer increase in accidents and as hospitals catch up on deferred surgeries.

“The donations people are giving are going to the hospitals faster than they’re coming in,” she said.

About 141,000 people donated blood in the last year in the region including Colorado, Wyoming, Montana and North Dakota. That’s down from about 155,000 in the previous 12 months, Way said.

All blood types are needed, but Type O blood is in shortest supply. Anybody can safely receive a transfusion from an O-negative donor, so it’s particularly important to have on hand for emergencies when the patient’s blood type may be unknown. O-positive blood doesn’t work for everyone, but it is the most-common blood type.

The American Red Cross also encouraged people of color to donate. People don’t have to receive blood from a donor of the same ethnicity, but some blood types are more common in certain racial groups. Black donors are especially needed, because people of African descent are more likely to have rare blood types not found in people whose ancestors came from somewhere else.

In August, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services announced a campaign to encourage eligible people to donate blood or plasma (the liquid part of blood, which also contains antibodies). The department estimated that someone needs whole blood or products derived from it roughly every two seconds because of an emergency, a surgery, cancer treatment, anemia or a blood disorder.

Nationwide, the blood supply hit a historic low in January, during the worst of the winter COVID-19 wave, before partially rebounding. The supply tends to dip in the summer, around holidays and during disruptive weather events, because fewer people are replenishing it.

Lily Griego, director of the region including Colorado for HHS, said the department is trying to encourage people who can donate to do so regularly.

“Having a steady supply of blood and plasma is crucial to the health of our nation and it saves lives,” she said in a statement.

Some people who were previously excluded from donating blood may be eligible again.

In June, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration lifted its rules barring blood donations from people who had spent extensive time in the United Kingdom between 1980 and 1996, lived in France or Ireland between 1980 and 2001, or received a blood transfusion in any of those three countries.

Those rules had been put in place in the 1990s because of concern about transmitting variant Creutzfeld-Jakob disease, better known as mad cow disease. The FDA determined the risk was “theoretical,” because there have been only four cases of possible transmission via blood, all in the United Kingdom, and none since 2006.

In 2020, the FDA also shortened the deferral period for men who have sex with men from a year to three months, citing improvements in the sensitivity of HIV screening. In practice, however, that means men in ongoing same-sex relationships still can’t give blood.

It’s important to check if you meet the eligibility criteria before coming to give blood, to maximize the available appointments, Way said. Centers often don’t have the staff to handle walk-in donors right now, though they’re offering a $5,000 signing bonus to recruit more phlebotomists, she said.

If potential donors can’t find a time that works for them immediately, it’s still worth scheduling an appointment further out, because the need isn’t going away, Way said.

“Patients need these donations throughout the year,” she said.

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