With a national shortage of donor blood, UK physicians ask for donations

Between the COVID-19 pandemic and bouts of bad weather, hospital systems across the country are experiencing an unprecedented shortage of donor blood.

UK physicians Morgan McCoy and Zachary Warriner discuss UK HealthCare’s high need for donor blood.

LEXINGTON, Ky. (UK Public Relations)  On a typical day inside the blood bank at the University of Kentucky Albert B. Chandler Hospital, the refrigerators are well-stocked with shelves of donated blood – a lifeline for countless patients dealing with severe injury or illness.

But for the past two years, no day has been typical. Between the COVID-19 pandemic and many bouts of bad weather, UK HealthCare and hospital systems across the country are experiencing an unprecedented shortage of donor blood.

At Chandler Hospital, for example, the blood bank is usually stocked with around 80 units of Type O positive blood. Known as the “universal donor,” this blood is in high demand. It’s frequently given in dire emergencies when trauma physicians don’t know – and don’t have time – to figure out the patient’s blood type before administering life-saving transfusions. Now, having that many units on hand at any given moment seems like a distant luxury. One January afternoon, the stores of Type O positive blood at Chandler had dipped down to just 15.

The UK HealthCare blood banks are the most sparse they have ever been, says Morgan McCoy, M.D., Ph.D., medical director of the blood banks. But this crisis stretches beyond Lexington and the Commonwealth. The whole nation, and even the world, is feeling the effect of the blood shortage brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“This is definitely the lowest I’ve ever seen it here. And, talking with others who have been here at UK for a lot longer than I have, they all say the same thing,” said McCoy. “We speak to some of our colleagues in other hospitals throughout the nation and the world, and everyone is seeing the exact same effect with the COVID-19 pandemic, and issues surrounding all of that. Everyone’s blood bank inventories have been severely diminished.”

UK HealthCare is home to the only Level I trauma center in the area, which means patients here have the highest need for blood in the state. Zachary Warriner, M.D., UK HealthCare trauma surgeon and assistant professor of surgery at the University of Kentucky College of Medicine, says it is critical for the UK HealthCare system to have plentiful amounts of blood on hand at all times.

“As a Level I trauma center, we’re responsible for dealing with the most critically injured patients across the state and even the region,” said Warriner. “We’re responsible for dealing with the highest acuity injuries because of not only our expertise but our resources.”

The trauma center’s relationship with the blood bank is one of the most critical in the hospital. A single, very injured patient has the potential to deplete a blood supply, therefore the amount of blood the hospital has on hand can mean life or death.

“When saving someone’s life in the trauma center, I often don’t have time to wait for someone to bring blood from elsewhere,” said Warriner. “I spend the vast majority of my day stopping people from bleeding to death, and I can do that relatively quickly. But, if there is no blood to replace the blood volume that they’ve lost, then there is nothing I can do to save that person.”

Patients in need of blood transfusions come in all shapes and sizes, extending beyond the critically injured. Patients undergoing chemotherapy, premature babies, transplant patients, elective surgery patients and patients with a variety of other conditions may require blood transfusions as well.

“We take care of a lot of patients here at UK,” said McCoy. “We have babies, neonates, patients that just have some kind of chronic anemia going on with them. These patients all need to have transfusion support with blood products.”

The blood bank employees have one of the most critical behind-the-scenes responsibilities in the hospital system by ensuring these life-saving blood products are ready for patient use at any moment. When blood units arrive at UK HealthCare, they undergo several levels of preparation and treatment in the blood bank before each unit is ready for transfusion. When units are ordered and ready, a pneumatic tube system often takes the blood quickly to the area of the hospital that needs it.

“We have an exceptional group of people here, both here and at Good Samaritan Hospital,” said McCoy. “We’ve got wonderful, dedicated blood bank techs that have been here for years, some have even been here for decades. They are very well-trained and dedicated people.”

The need to have blood on hand and ready at any moment is why it is so important for members of the community to routinely donate if possible. UK HealthCare, along with more than 70 other Kentucky hospitals, relies on the Kentucky Blood Center (KBC) to supply blood for patients in the Commonwealth. This means that the Kentucky Blood Center relies on the people of Kentucky to come forward and supply donations.

“As we enter the third year of this pandemic, it has become more important than ever that people who can donate blood do so as often as possible,” said Dennis Williams, M.D., chief of UK HealthCare Transfusion Medicine Service and medical director for the Kentucky Blood Center. “The blood shortage can only be solved if people make the decision to prioritize this easy way to impact their community.”

“Donating blood is one of the greatest things that you can do for your community. If you haven’t donated before, there are a lot of people at the Kentucky Blood Center that would be happy to walk you through that process,” said McCoy. “You have the opportunity to touch so many lives.”

Donating blood is quick and easy, and donating with the Kentucky Blood Center (KBC) will ensure your blood is being used right here in the Commonwealth. Through KBC, your blood can be processed into three different critical, life-saving blood products: red blood cells (RBC), plasma and cryoprecipitate. Your donations have the chance to impact and save multiple lives throughout the state of Kentucky.

“I know it sounds scary, but it’s as simple as getting an I.V. for the blood to be drawn. You get to sit, relax and wait. And you get to feel like you’ve done something to really support the people of the state,” said Warriner. “The ease in which you can donate, and the reliability of being able to skip wait times with a scheduled appointment will make it easy for people to say, ‘This is a service that I am going to continue to provide for the people that I love and the rest of the state.’”

“Donating blood is a very simple process that takes less than an hour,” Williams said. “You are able to donate blood every 56 days, which gives a person six chances per year to give the gift of life. If you’ve never donated before, we urge you to give it a try.”

In Lexington, blood donations can be made at KBC’s two donor centers in Beaumont and Andover. To find donation sites or mobile drives outside of Lexington, or to schedule an appointment, visit www.kybloodcenter.org/find-a-drive or call 800-775-2522. Face coverings are required while donating. There is no wait time to donate after receiving the COVID-19 vaccine.

Both Lexington KBC locations are open from 9 a.m. – 6 p.m. Monday-Friday and 8 a.m. – 2 p.m. on Saturdays.

Andover Donor Center

3130 Maple Leaf Drive, Lexington

Beaumont Donor Center

3121 Beaumont Centre Circle, Lexington

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