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As flu season begins, blood shortages continue

Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.
Grace Blair
The Florida Channel
Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.

The Red Cross is experiencing its lowest supply of blood in more than a decade heading into the holidays.

Donating blood is personal for Sydney Bednoski. After a family friend passed away due to complications involving a low platelet count, Bednoski said she realized how critical it is for healthy individuals to give blood and began to donate more often herself.

However, the need for blood donations this year is more critical than most. The American Red Cross announced that it is experiencing a critical blood supply shortage this year, with its lowest supply of blood in more than a decade heading into the holidays and into flu season.

As flu season begins and flu cases begin to rise, the number of healthy donors such as Bednoski will drop due to the effects of feeling ill. When donors stop donating due to sickness, hospitals struggle to provide patients with vital blood transfusions and platelets.

Bednoski donated blood last month, but shortly before donating, Bednoski caught the flu.

“I had a lot of chills and nausea, and because of that I had to wait to go donate,” Bednoski said. “When you’re not feeling well, you don’t feel like going and donating blood.”

Statistics from the Red Cross show that Bednoski’s assessment is, in fact, true. As more people become sick, the number of donors decreases due to the toll that illnesses take on the body. The Red Cross said in a Nov. 8 press release it sees a direct correlation between seasonal illness upticks and decreasing blood donors.

The expected uptick is beginning, according to the Florida Health Department’s weekly flu review. Flu cases in Florida “remained low in recent weeks but are starting to increase,” as of Nov. 13. Counties in Central Florida reported a plateau in cases at the time of the review.

Laura Bialeck, community development coordinator at Gainesville-based LifeSouth Community Blood Centers, said the shortage was primarily caused by the effects and precautions of the COVID-19 pandemic but is expected to worsen this year in the wake of flu season.

The Red Cross said donors decreased 34% over the past year due the pandemic’s effects on blood drives in a Nov. 22 press release.

Bialeck also said that seasonal fluctuations always occur throughout the year and affect donation numbers, but a robust flu season could drive away even more donors that are necessary for preventing further shortages.

“If someone usually only donates one or twice a year, adding an additional donation would go a long way to easing the shortage,” Bialeck wrote in an email.

Bialeck also encouraged people to take precautions for preventing the flu and urged those who have yet to donate blood to consider doing so.

“Only 5% of the people who are eligible to donate blood actually do so. It is a small percentage of people who are blood donors,” Bialeck said. “If we could change that number to 6 or 7%, we could eliminate blood shortages for the foreseeable future.”

To combat the shortage, many blood donation locations are offering incentives to encourage people to donate. The Red Cross’s Nov. 22 press release included a section that said donors between Nov. 29–Dec. 16 will be given a $10 Amazon gift card and entered for a chance to win a private screening of The Matrix Resurrections. Bednoski, who is a member of the Delta Delta Delta sorority at UF, also said her chapter offers incentives for donating blood in the form of activity points.

Dr. John Lednicky, a virologist and research professor in the University of Florida’s department of environmental and global health, said that the rise in flu cases this season compared to last is partially due to the expected consequence of loosened restrictions, as well as the “forgetfulness” of immune systems. Cells activate genes called interferons when fighting off infections, Lednicky said, but these interferons will not remain activated if the immune system goes an extended time without encountering viruses.

“When we relax our precautions, we are exposing ourselves to more than just COVID” said Lednicky.

Lednicky also encouraged everyone to get the flu vaccine to prevent a severe flu season and worsening blood shortages. Although the flu season only affects blood supply due to people feeling too sick to donate, Lednicky said it is still important to prevent the spread of the flu while simultaneously maintaining blood supplies.

“The important things are to get vaccinated and remember the basics of staying healthy,” Lednicky said. “We are primed for a big influenza outbreak right now. We just have to be smart and continue to keep each other safe.”