WASHINGTON — As protests and violence erupt in cities, the United States faces a new threat: The country is running out of blood.
Several months of social distancing and stay-at-home orders have resulted in fewer people donating blood, according to health care workers, with collection drives at offices, schools and churches canceled en masse. For a while, the drop in donations was not critical because supply and demand fell in tandem as most surgeries were canceled and far fewer people were getting injured in car crashes and other accidents.
But now, even as hospitals have resumed elective surgeries and many Americans are venturing out of their homes again, the rate of blood donations has yet to bounce back. The result is what Chris Hrouda, president of biomedical services for the American Red Cross, which collects about 40 percent of the country’s blood donations, called a “staggering” drop in supply.
“Our inventories have been cut in half,” Mr. Hrouda said. “We’re starting to get into a critical situation.”
As demand keeps rising across the country, hurricane season, projected to be even more devastating than usual, may also increase the need for blood supplies. Multiple intense storms may also make it harder to collect.
The Red Cross, which usually has enough blood supplies to meet the nation’s needs for five days, now has less than two days’ worth, Mr. Hrouda said. In response, the group on Sunday stopped sending hospitals around the country the full amount of blood requested in their standing orders, instead providing just 75 percent of the requests.
If donations don’t increase in the next week or two, Mr. Hrouda added, the Red Cross will have to cut that amount even further, sending hospitals just half their requested amounts. He said the Red Cross was still fulfilling emergency orders.
“It puts hospitals and doctors in the precarious position of deciding who gets blood,” Mr. Hrouda said.
Further aggravating the shortage, said Brian Gannon, chief executive of the Gulf Coast Regional Blood Center in Texas, is that many hospitals are performing surgeries at an even faster clip than before the pandemic as they try to work through the backlog of operations.
“Slow down on your electives,” Mr. Gannon said he had told the roughly hundred hospitals that get blood from his center.
Some of the most crucial types of blood are in even shorter supply. The most important is Type O-negative, which can be given to any person, regardless of their blood type — and is therefore especially useful for patients who can’t wait for doctors to determine their blood type.
Mr. Gannon said he usually had a three to four day supply of Type O red blood cells. Now he has just one or two days’ worth.
The drop has already started to complicate the jobs of emergency rooms doctors, according to Mark S. Rosenberg, chairman of emergency medicine at St. Joseph’s Health in Paterson and Wayne, N.J., and president-elect of the American College of Emergency Physicians.
“We’re running critically low in certain blood types like O-negative,” Dr. Rosenberg said. “I get about half of what I need.”
For now, emergency rooms can use workarounds, such as delaying procedures long enough to find out a patient’s blood type.
But that will only work for so long, Dr. Rosenberg cautioned.
“We’re in a crisis that potentially can really escalate,” he said. “If this continues, we’re going to put patients at risk.”
Michelle Hood, chief operating officer for the American Hospital Association, said the country’s hospitals “are critically aware of the potential implications of shortages of blood.”
“We have not yet heard of blood supply issues impacting patient care,” Ms. Hood said. Still, she said, hospitals are urging people to donate.
Hurricane season often increases the demand for blood and will make the problem even more challenging, experts warned.
Elizabeth A. Zimmerman, who ran disaster operations for the Federal Emergency Management Agency during the Obama administration, said some kinds of storms can lead to an influx of people who need medical help. She cited what she called “pop-up hurricanes,” which accelerate quickly and so may not provide people enough time to evacuate.
Emergency managers encourage people to help survivors by donating blood during and after disasters, Ms. Zimmerman said. But this year, she added, that message might not have the same results.
Local health officials warned that the shortage has made it harder to get ready for hurricanes and other disasters.
“We’re entering these seasons where we know there’s typically more strain on the blood supply,” said Adriane Casalotti, chief of government and public affairs for the National Association of County and City Health Officials, which represents about 3,000 local health departments. “You want to be ready for an influx of patients.”
Asked how the federal government was preparing for the impact of a blood shortage on this year’s disasters, FEMA referred questions to the Department of Health and Human Services, which did not respond.
The combination of growing demand from hospitals, continued limits on typical blood drives and, projections suggest, a bad storm season makes it all the more important for people to donate blood, said Mr. Hrouda of the Red Cross, before the supply falls even further.
He said the Red Cross takes steps to ensure the safety of its donation sites — requiring the use of masks, taking the temperature of donors, and cleaning all the equipment. He urged people to get back in the habit of giving.
“We’re trying to avoid yet another crisis in the country,” he said. “We’ve got enough on our hands.”