Pandemic slump has blood supply dangerously low

Every two seconds someone in the United States needs blood.


Kaitlyn Lorang

Leah Irlbeck, a sophomore early childhood education major from Redwood Falls, Minnesota, gives blood at a recent blood drive in Brookings.

Kaitlyn Lorang, Reporter

The problem is that less than 38% of the population is eligible to give blood, and of that number, only 3% donate, according to the American Red Cross. 

Currently, the U.S. blood supply is dangerously low, which is uncommon for this time of year because fall is generally when the supply is stable, according to the Red Cross. Southeast South Dakota has not escaped the shortage squeeze.

The significant increase in the call for blood has been caused by low donor turnout and high hospital use.

And a troubling trend is that young people – like college students – are not donating in large enough numbers. As people age, they often begin to go on medications and thus become ineligible to donate. This is concerning because health care officials count on younger donors to take their places. 

Ken Versteeg is the executive director at Community Blood Bank and works as a facilitator between the Avera and Sanford hospital systems.

“We have individuals that have been donating blood for over 40 years. They have donated 25-30 gallons of blood,” Versteeg said.

There are two upcoming opportunities where South Dakota State University students can help with the problem:

Dec. 2: Community Blood Bank will be on the SDSU campus in the Bloodmobile from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. with the School of Engineering.

Feb. 17: The Red Cross will be on campus again for the SDSU vs USD donation challenge. SDSU and USD will compete to see which university can donate the most blood.

A critical blood shortage is called when there is less than a 48-hour blood supply left for communities, according to the Community Blood Bank in Sioux Falls. 

“When we put those critical blood shortage messages out there, we are at a point that we have to collect that blood or reach out to our partners (blood banks in other communities not directly affiliated with Sioux Falls Community Blood Bank),” Versteeg said. 

The problem with reaching out to other blood banks during the pandemic is that there are not many available units, as others are in a similar position.

“Community Blood Bank supplies blood to 36 local area hospitals, including Brookings Health System,” Versteeg said. “Our goal is to be self-sufficient. When we go to Brookings, our goal is to collect what the needs are there.”

In a similar way the American Red Cross is working toward the same goal. The organization supplies about 40% of the nation’s blood supply. 

“Now with decreased blood donor turnout, our Red Cross blood supply has dropped to the lowest it has been at this time of year since 2015,” Chris Hrouda, president of Red Cross Biomedical Services, said in a press release.

Both of these organizations recognize that this is a trying time for the country because we are still navigating the pandemic. 

The hospitals are starting to see more severe cases of cancer and illness. Many of these patients have waited to go get checked since the pandemic started in early 2020, Versteeg said. 

The severity of these cancers and other illnesses are causing more transfusions and a need for more blood.

“Hospital usage has skyrocketed because of the elective surgeries that have been put off.,” Kim Jensen, account manager of donor recruitment with the American Red Cross, said. 

About 36,000 units of red blood cells are needed every day in the United States, according to the American Red Cross. 

The Community Blood Bank’s goal is to collect 550 units of blood each week, Versteeg said. 

The increase in elective surgeries and severe illnesses recently has created a bump in use from 550 units to nearly 700 units of blood a week for the Sioux Falls Community Blood Bank area. 

Both organizations say group O blood is in the highest demand right now because 45% of the population has this type of blood. 

O negative is known as the universal blood donor, which means it can be used for transfusions by any type. O negative is what they use in the helicopters when airlifting patients.

O positive is also in high demand because 37% of the population has O positive blood, so the supply needs to be larger since more people would potentially need this type of blood.

By giving blood you are helping cancer patients, sickle cell patients, trauma patients, burn victims and those who suffer from chronic illnesses, officials say. 

Red blood cells have a shelf life of 42 days, according to the Red Cross. The blood banks have not had any issues with shelf life lately because of the undersupply of blood that has fallen even lower since the pandemic started and brought new challenges. 

When the pandemic first started, there were many canceled blood donation events. This caused a significant decrease of blood throughout our nation, including at the local level. 

“Little by little, we are making some ground and seeing people come out after the pandemic,” Versteeg said. 

Typically, 45-65 units of blood are donated at the average college blood drive. 

Most recently, the Student Nursing Association hosted a blood drive at SDSU with the Red Cross that was successful, receiving nearly 100 donations during the two-day event. 

According to Versteeg, the drive that took place in late September was one of the best in the last two years. 

“Most of the time, we have a really great turnout of students at blood drives,” said Rob Knapp, a phlebotomist with the Red Cross. 

The Red Cross and Community Blood Bank offer different incentives to giving blood such as T-shirts and fast-food gift cards. Those who are eligible to donate are urged to do so now to help overcome this current shortage, says the American Red Cross.

“We really need to find those donors that are healthy and can donate, but just never have,” Jensen said. 

While you’ve been reading this article, about 140 people have needed blood.


What’s the difference between 

Community Blood Bank and American Red Cross?

Community Blood Bank

Community Blood Bank stays local

3 Bloodmobiles that you donate in 

2 donor rooms (1 in Sanford in Sioux Falls and 1 in Avera in Sioux Falls)

Brand new 44ft bus

Provide education materials on the bus

Visits SDSU about ten times a year

SDSU students can help with spreading the word

Partner with a club or organization on campus

Issues local area shortage messages/alert

American Red Cross

Red Cross is national and supply’s 40% of the nation’s blood

Inside blood drives

Visit’s SDSU twice a year 

Has buses, too, but they travel in more metro areas

Blood is delivered all throughout the country 

Partners with a club or organization on campus for the blood drives

Issues national shortage messages

Scholarship program