Blood supplies for local hospitals have dropped to such critical levels in recent weeks that San Antonio’s blood bank is pleading with organizations to host more drives.

The coronavirus pandemic has wreaked havoc on the blood supply at the South Texas Blood & Tissue Center, which supplies blood to over 100 hospitals and clinics in 48 counties, according to Roger Ruiz, a spokesman for the blood bank.

The bank receives about 70 percent of all blood donations through blood drives,
which are typically hosted by businesses, schools, and churches. But as the pandemic took hold and shutdowns were imposed in March, blood drives were canceled at an alarming rate, said Dr. Samantha Gomez Ngamsuntikul, associate medical director at the blood center.

“We’ve had more than a thousand drives cancelled since March,” Gomez Ngamsuntikul said. “So everyone’s having to come to our centers to donate, and we’re not seeing enough donors walk through our doors to be able to supply the whole community.”

According to numbers provided by the blood bank, the canceled drives amounted to 7,500 lost donations over just the summer, and things have not improved this fall. Gomez Ngamsuntikul said colleges and schools hosting drives when the school year begins have typically been a reliable source of donations, but with the prevalence of distance learning this year, blood drives continued to be canceled this fall, accounting for another estimated 8,500 donations lost.

To keep the community blood supply at an acceptable level, the bank needs an average of 500 donations a day, Ruiz said, but recently it receives only about 280 donations, and that’s on a good day.

Stephanie Nunez-Leos, director of donor recruitment at the blood center, said despite the bank’s increasingly urgent efforts to get community partners to schedule drives there so far has been no uptick in the number of drives or donations. In fact, she said donations on site at the blood center have actually dropped from 230 on an average day to 206 in just the past three weeks.

On Tuesday, a blood drive is scheduled at Central Catholic High School in honor of one of the school’s students, Noah Adams, a 17-year-old who was diagnosed over the summer with Ewing sarcoma, a rare bone cancer in his knee.

Debi Harper, Adams’ mother, said not many people realize that cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy frequently need blood transfusions to replenish their white blood cells. She said she was grateful that blood was available for her son when he needed several transfusions, both while he was undergoing chemotherapy and during and after the surgery to amputate his leg.

“The blood bank shortage is near and dear to our hearts, because this is helping him and it’s keeping him alive so that he can be here with us,” Harper said.

Although he hasn’t missed any transfusions due to the shortage yet, Adams said as a cancer patient he’s been able to see the faces of patients who will be impacted by the continued blood shortage.

“Every time I go to get treatment there’s this 1- or 2-year-old boy who has cancer, and I see him every time I go in, and it sucks to think that he could need blood one time and there’s not going to be any because people are scared of a needle or whatnot,” Adams said. “It’s worth it to be able to save lives, and if you can, then do it.”

Dr. Leslie Greebon, medical director of transfusion services at University Health System, said in a statement that the situation was forcing doctors to make hard choices at local hospitals.

“All our patients are competing for blood,” Greebon said. “We have had to cancel some blood treatments or delay them until blood becomes available. If this becomes more severe, we would have to cancel procedures or have medical/trauma diversion to other hospitals. We would not be able to accept more patients but would need to focus on those already within our walls.”

Typically, during such a dire shortage the South Texas Blood and Tissue Center could ask for help from other blood banks, but supplies are critically low nationwide, as the pandemic has shut down community blood drives across the U.S.

“Historically, if someone needs blood you’re able to move it around the country, but we’re all in the same boat,” Gomez Ngamsuntikul said. “And complicating it further is that all the blood that we collect has a shelf life of only 42 days, so [we need to] constantly bring donors in to make sure the hospitals have enough for their patients.”

Gomez Ngamsuntikul said donors and organizations should not worry about the safety of donating during the pandemic as the blood bank is following a litany of safety protocols, including social distancing. But those protocols have further slowed donations because donors are now required to make an appointment ahead of time, instead of simply walking in, as has been typical for blood drives in the past.

There are a few blood drives still scheduled around the city over the next few weeks, and Gomez Ngamsuntikul encouraged donors to seek them out or come into one of the blood bank’s six locations around the city.

“Just please donate blood,” Gomez Ngamsuntikul said. “If you can’t donate, for whatever reason, just find someone to take your place to donate blood. The demand for blood continues, and we have to find some way to make sure that our hospital patients have enough blood, and so we are willing to work with any organization to make a blood drive happen on their campus, because this is not sustainable.”

Information on how and where to donate as well as a list of the South Texas Blood & Tissue Center’s blood donation collection sites can be found here.

Jennifer Norris

Jennifer Norris

Jennifer Norris has been working in journalism since 2005. She's a native Texan, but a new San Antonian who is excited to get to know the city.