Minnesota's blood banks say blood donations have dropped to worrying levels that haven't been seen in 10 years as the COVID-19 pandemic drags on.

The shortage, which is happening nationwide, has hospitals keeping a close eye on blood inventories, which have in some cases been reduced by 20% in an effort to make sure all hospitals have what is needed for scheduled surgeries and emergencies.

Blood donations took a hit shortly after the pandemic began in 2020 as workplaces and schools closed their doors and canceled on-site blood drives, which had been a significant source for keeping the system stocked.

But the staffing shortage has hit blood centers just like other health care providers, meaning that they can't schedule as many blood collection slots. The arrival of the highly contagious delta and now omicron variants have also kept people away.

"Nationwide it is as bad as I've seen," said Phil Losacker, community relations manager for St. Paul-based Memorial Blood Centers. "People are reticent about going into buildings. People are not showing up to donate as they have in the past."

This time of year, with the onset of cold weather and the busy holidays, has always been challenging for blood collection. Now it is compounded by nearly two years of decreased donations.

"We're down 10% since the beginning of the pandemic and we haven't seen it rebound," said Carrie Carlson-Guest, regional communications officer for the Minnesota and Dakotas region of the American Red Cross, based in Minneapolis.

"Normally we like to keep three to five days of blood on the shelves," she said. "Now we are down to about a one day supply. The hospitals are having to assess what are their most important needs."

Blood centers nationwide as well as local hospitals and health care providers that need blood work closely together to monitor shortages. Sometimes supplies of red blood cells, plasma and platelets are transferred between facilities where the need is greatest.

"We have been holding steady as best as we can," said Dr. Nancy Van Buren, a medical director at Memorial Blood Centers who also works for HCMC. "It is not a crisis mode but it is a very urgent mode.

"We just really carefully monitor what is being utilized and try to balance it between all of our hospitals to make sure that everybody has what they need," she said.

Hospitals are prolific purchasers of all the things that are needed to care for patients, including masks, saline bags, surgical equipment and oxygen.

But they can't buy blood, even though it is a critical component in health care.

"Our blood supply is completely dependent on the community donating," said Dr. Lauren Anthony, medical director of the Allina Health Central Laboratory, which manages Allina's blood supply. "There is no other source, there is no substitute and the need is constant."

Many surgeries are scheduled in advance, giving hospitals the time to prepare for blood transfusions. But hospitals also need to be ready for emergencies, be it a car crash, bullet wounds or a surgery patient who develops unexpected complications.

"A regular and difficult part of managing the blood supply is knowing that you need to set some aside for a sudden surge or when an emergency comes in the door," said Dr. Claudia Cohn, director of the blood bank laboratory for M Health Fairview. "It is an incredibly important resource and every time a patient needs blood it is an absolute requirement so they stay healthy."

Blood centers are looking for donors of all blood types, but especially those with O negative blood, which is a universal type that can safely be used in all transfusions, especially emergencies. In addition, O positive is in high demand because it is the most common blood type, according to the American Red Cross.

Blood centers said they've instituted COVID-19 safety protocols, including masking, social distancing and scheduling appointments to limit crowding. But because staffing shortages have limited the number of appointments, potential blood donors should be prepared to plan ahead.

"We really encourage people if they can't find an appointment that works for them, look a couple of months out. We will still need blood," said Carlson-Guest.

Some centers are offering incentives. The Red Cross will hold a drawing for Super Bowl tickets and is offering a $10 Amazon gift card. Memorial Blood Centers is offering rewards through a donor loyalty program.

"We are constantly grateful and completely dependent on the volunteer donors across the United States who give of themselves," said Cohn. "Every time they do, they are potentially saving a life."

To make an appointment to donate blood:

American Red Cross

Memorial Blood Centers