Nationwide blood shortage puts Idaho hospitals in dire need

BOISE, Idaho (AP) — A national blood shortage caused by a surge in omicron cases has hit Idaho hard, with some hospitals nearly running out of the critical medical resource before they are resupplied, state health officials said Tuesday.

Much of the southern half of the state entered crisis standards of care on Monday, partly because of staff shortages and partly because the inventory of blood products used in transfusions, surgeries and other treatments is running dangerously low. The designation allows hospitals to ration care as needed when they don’t have enough resources for all patients.

“With the omicron surge, there is tremendous pressure on the entire Idaho health care system,” Idaho Department of Health and Welfare Director Dave Jeppesen said during a public briefing Tuesday afternoon. “Most Idaho health care systems have implemented blood conservation strategies.”

The department has created a “Critical Blood Supply Task Force” to better understand the shortage and help hospitals share the blood supply across the state’s health care system, said Elke Shaw-Tulloch, administrator of the Idaho Division of Public Health. During daily calls, hospitals report how much blood they have on hand — and some are dropping as low as one unit of blood in their inventory before they can be replenished, she said.

The shortage is partly because blood drives have been canceled amid the omicron surge, with blood bank staffers out sick with COVID-19, fewer people donating and in some cases bad winter weather that made it difficult to transport blood supplies around the nation, she said.

Shaw-Tulloch encouraged Idaho residents to donate blood or platelets “as soon as possible” through organizations like the Red Cross or America’s Blood Centers.

Dr. Steve Nemerson, the chief clinical officer with Saint Alphonsus Health System, said his hospitals haven’t yet run out of blood products, but they are using more blood each day than they receive. Doctors can no longer make transfusion decisions on their own, but instead must work with the hospital’s blood bank to ensure that each patient getting a transfusion meets stringent criteria for the treatment, he said.

“We expect to expand that to a point where we actually will limit the amount of blood that will be available to patients based on condition and prognosis,” he said.

The shortage is particularly concerning for trauma patients, people with blood cancers and women who are delivering babies, Nemerson said.

Rarely, complications during birth can cause mothers to lose a lot of blood quickly.

“We want to make sure that we’ve got a good blood supply for every woman that is going to be delivering in case that catastrophe were to happen,” he said, “so we can resuscitate that woman and keep that baby stable.”

The health officials also urged people to get vaccinated against coronavirus, as well as booster shots. Vaccination dramatically reduces the likelihood of severe disease from coronavirus, easing pressure on the health care system.

Idaho’s vaccination rate remains among the lowest in the nation, and the number of residents getting their first COVID-19 vaccination has remained under 1,000 nearly every day this year. The number of people seeking booster doses is also declining. Still, officials say they won’t give up.

“We just need to keep saying it over and over again, how important it is,” Shaw-Tulloch said.

More than 3,500 additional coronavirus cases were reported to the state on Tuesday. That’s an undercount, health officials warn, because it doesn’t include people who take at-home COVID-19 tests and it doesn’t include more than 40,000 positive lab tests that are still waiting to be counted from the past two weeks.

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