Keeping up with the flow

Vanessa Jaramillo, right, looks for a vein on Fiana Shapiro on Saturday morning at Vitalant, a nonprofit national organization that collects blood from donors and distributes it to hospitals experiencing shortages. (Roberto E. Rosales/Albuquerque Journal)

As COVID-19 cases surge throughout New Mexico and ever more hospital beds are filled with people needing care, widespread community caution or fear of contracting the virus has also increased, resulting in fewer blood donors.

Vitalant, the nonprofit national organization that collects blood from donors and distributes it to hospitals is experiencing a shortage, said Aussy Levi, Vitalant’s senior manager for donor recruitment in New Mexico.

That shortage has not yet impacted the ability of local hospitals to meet their blood infusion needs, according to hospital officials.

“Obviously, as you see more COVID cases we’re going to have fewer donors because people will have been exposed, or they fear being exposed, and they don’t want to go out,” Levi said.

According to Dr. Chakri Gavva, a pathologist and medical director of Presbyterian Hospital’s blood bank, the hospital’s inventory of blood products is sufficient for now. “But with poor weather, cancellation of blood drives due to COVID, and the holidays coming up, we face the very real possibility of blood product shortages near the end of the year,” he said. “So there will be a continued need for red blood cell, platelet and plasma donations.”

Fiana Shapiro donates blood Saturday morning at the Vitalant. (Roberto E. Rosales/Albuquerque Journal)

Dr. Aaron Pritchard, medical director for blood banks and laboratories at Lovelace Health Systems said that despite the challenges, “at this time we have met and continue to meet all of our transfusion needs at Lovelace, and the reason we have not felt that shortage is because Vitalant has done such a great job in continuing to provide us with blood.”

In order to keep a safe and healthy blood supply level, Vitalant needs to have 300 donors throughout the state each day, which it currently is not getting, Levi said. “When we fall short of that 300, the national organization steps in to help us prioritize and meet the needs.”

Complicating the matter is the onset of the holiday season, when blood donations normally decline “because people are doing other things, like shopping or traveling, and not thinking about donating blood,” Levi said.

Normally, because of all the holiday travel there are also more vehicle accidents and an increased need for more blood, she said.

The pandemic is likely to result in less travel for Christmas and New Year, though it’s not clear what the overall affect will be on the local blood supply, Levi said.

“We are in a time of need and we need all blood types and want people to please come in and donate.”

Also being sought are donations of blood plasma, particularly from people who had the coronavirus and have since recovered for at least 28 days.

Those people may have developed antibodies to the virus, which after the plasma is processed can be infused into patients who have active COVID cases.

The antibodies, Levi said, “can help boost their immune system so they can recover faster and the hospitals can release them sooner.”

While the blood supply reaching hospitals is not yet a crisis, the increased number of beds occupied by COVID patients and the staff required to care for them is straining the system. Hospitals have been forced to add beds, reassign medical personnel within their healthcare systems, request help from retired doctors and nurses, and hire itinerant medical personnel from out of state.

The University of New Mexico Hospital follows a pandemic influenza plan that allows it to increase beds and adjust staffing and other resources as needed, said hospital spokeswoman Cindy Foster.

“As the number of COVID patients continues to increase, we are adapting our plan to levels we have not seen before. We are now caring for patients in areas that previously had been clinics or other types of space,” she said.

“We will continue to try and be creative in our approach to increasing our capacity, but we are concerned that, like the other health systems in New Mexico, we will be straining the limits of even that increased capacity,” Foster said.

In a recent interview with CNN, Dr. Jason Mitchell, chief medical officer at Presbyterian Healthcare Services, said Presbyterian, like other hospitals in New Mexico has increased capacity by opening up new areas for beds, creating more double occupancy rooms and bringing in staff from outside its own system.

“We are out of levers to pull,” he cautioned. “When you run out of resources – whether that’s doctors or nurses or beds or ventilators – you cannot give the best care.

“We are not there yet but we are very close as a state.”

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