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Red Cross responds to disasters, sounds alarm on ‘dangerously low’ blood supply

After an encouraging spike in blood donors early on in the COVID-19 pandemic, the Red Cross says it has seen a steady decline in blood supply the past couple months.
American Red Cross of Missouri and Arkansas
After an encouraging spike in blood donors early on in the COVID-19 pandemic, the Red Cross says it has seen a steady decline in blood supply the past couple months.

As the provider of about 40% of the U.S. blood supply, the American Red Cross generally aims to keep about a five-day supply on hand at any given time, coordinating distribution with some 2,600 hospitals across the nation. But lately, said spokesman Joe Zydlo, that stock of “blood on the shelves” has dwindled to roughly one day’s worth.

It’s a situation that the Red Cross has in recent weeks described as historic, with its website terming the supply “dangerously low.”

“What happens is [that] when you have only a day supply, when disaster hits in a particular area, such as tornadoes that we saw last month … blood drives will be canceled,” Zydlo, the regional communications manager for the American Red Cross of Missouri and Arkansas, explained Monday on St. Louis on the Air. “You may have donor centers that are closed due to what happened. And so you can’t collect enough blood to hopefully provide that to your hospitals.”

Residents of Trumann, Arkansas, connect with Red Cross personnel in the wake of a tornado that ripped through the town Dec. 10.
American Red Cross of Missouri and Arkansas
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Residents of Trumann, Arkansas, connect with Red Cross personnel in the wake of a tornado that ripped through the town Dec. 10.

Every two seconds, someone in the U.S. needs blood, he said, adding that there’s also been an increase “in more need for more blood products over the last several months.”

Zydlo pointed to a couple of factors driving the increasing demand, suggesting that some of the need comes because people who paused elective procedures during the early part of the COVID-19 pandemic are finally undergoing things like hip or knee replacements. He said trauma situations are also on the rise around the U.S. as “more people are getting out.”

There was actually a surge in blood donors early on in the COVID-19 pandemic as people searched for ways to help. But in recent months, the Red Cross has seen a significant decrease in first-time blood donors — a 13.5% drop in the St. Louis region.

“We really rely on those first-time donors to come,” Zydlo said.

As the organization sounds the alarm with emergency appeals for blood donation, it’s also focused on responding to recent natural disasters, including the tornadoes that hit communities such as Defiance, Missouri, and Trumann, Arkansas. In mid-December, Zydlo traveled to Trumann and saw the devastation firsthand.

He discussed his observations with host Sarah Fenske — and answered listener questions related to giving blood.

Red Cross pushes blood donation, disaster relief
Listen as regional communications manager Joe Zydlo discusses what’s causing the shortfall in blood supply, and how it plays into the organization’s recent response to tornadoes in Missouri and Arkansas.

To give financially to the American Red Cross or set up a blood donation appointment, go to redcross.org. St. Louis Public Radio is hosting a blood drive from 1 to 6 p.m. Jan. 19.

St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Alex Heuer, Emily Woodbury, Evie Hemphill, Lara Hamdan and Kayla Drake. Jane Mather-Glass is our production assistant. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr.

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Evie is a producer for "St. Louis on the Air" at St. Louis Public Radio.

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