Ken Niswonger lies on a black leather sofa placing his right arm on a soft pillow and squeezing a ball rhythmically to help the blood flow. The rest of the seats in the LifeSouth Community Blood Center bus were unoccupied on that Wednesday afternoon.
“When you retire like I am, you got plenty of time,” he said. “You got to fill your day in some ways. I came to spend a couple hours with these nice people and (donate) platelets.”
Niswonger has Type O-positive blood. Since the 1980s, the 70-year-old has donated blood or platelets every two weeks. Although he donates blood regularly, his efforts are not enough for the whole community.
LifeSouth Community Blood Center needs at least 100 donations a day to keep the local blood bank at a safe threshold, but donations lately have been around 70 per day. LifeSouth is not alone; blood centers across the United States have a critical blood shortage problem, especially for Type O blood.
“That includes not only O-negative, which is the universal blood type that can go to anybody, but also O-positive, which is a very common blood type, and we would not normally see severe shortages of this type for so long,” Laura Bialeck said, the district community development coordinator for LifeSouth. “So what that is indicating is that we just aren’t having the donor base that we normally would.”
Bialeck said LifeSouth supplies all of the blood to hospitals in north central Florida. Normally, if there is a blood shortage, staff members would reach out to other blood banks in the nation to acquire blood for an emergency.
“That has been more difficult since we are all in the same boat,” Bialeck said. If the blood shortage continues, some elective surgeries might be canceled, and blood centeres will have to scramble to find blood sources.
UF Shands Health Hospitals also have experienced periodic shortages of Type O-positive red cells and cryoglobulin, proteins in the blood, in the department of pathology, immunology and laboratory medicine blood bank at the University of Florida College of Medicine, according to UF Health spokesman Ken Garcia.
One reason contributing to this shortage is that people are still working from home, but the bloodmobiles are limited to park at centers such as businesses or schools with enough parking space for the large vehicle. In addition, high schools in Alachua County have not allowed bloodmobiles to come to campus since March 2020, while high school blood donors made up 20% of donations collected the year before the pandemic.
LifeSouth staff are taking precautions to ensure safe donating procedures. Each staff member wears a mask and gloves, and they are responsible for taking the temperature of donors while maintaining social distance standards.
Kathy Richardson, a Gainesville universal donor with O-negative blood, has donated several times since the pandemic at the bloodmobile and facilities on Northwest 13th Street and Newberry Road.
“There’s no additional risk [of getting COVID-19],” Richardson said. “Everyone is following the guidelines.”
Bialeck said another reason for the shortage might be caused by unclear eligibility rules. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Food and Drug Administration have guidelines for donors about concerns over recent vaccinations, tattoos and medication restrictions.
“If someone has been told long ago that they cannot donate, please check with us again,” Richardson said.