MURRAY — With the coronavirus pandemic has come a secondary emergency — a critical blood shortage for those in cancer treatment or facing other medical crises, according to health officials.

The American Red Cross has seen a staggering drop in blood donations amid social distancing measures and fears of spreading the virus. Thousands of organized blood drives have been canceled, resulting in hundreds of thousands fewer blood donations than usual.

“The need for donated blood is constant, and blood centers are open and in urgent need of donations. (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) encourages people who are well to continue to donate blood if they are able, even if they are practicing social distancing because of COVID-19. CDC is supporting blood centers by providing recommendations that will keep donors and staff safe,” the CDC said in a recent statement.

The Red Cross, which supplies blood to 2,500 hospitals and clinics in the U.S., does not keep a stockpile as donated blood only has a 42-day shelf life, according to Cynthia De La Torre, Red Cross spokeswoman.

But even as the COVID-19 pandemic spreads, it’s still safe to donate blood, she said, and everyone who is healthy should do it.

“We definitely depend on those voluntary blood donors to donate that lifesaving blood,” De La Torre said.

Addressing concerns that, due to the long, asymptomatic incubation period of the coronavirus, someone can be sick and not know it, De La Torre said no evidence has shown that respiratory viruses, including the coronavirus, can transfer through blood.

The Red Cross has taken extra safety measures to ensure cleanliness in its donation centers, where the majority of blood drives are now taking place, she said.

Before a donor enters the blood drive, Red Cross workers now take that person’s temperature and check them for symptoms of the virus. Donors also get their vitals, including blood pressure and iron count, checked before blood is drawn.

Phlebotomist Jake Erickson wipes down a chair at American Red Cross in Murray on Monday, March 23, 2020. | Ivy Ceballo, Deseret News

“Safety is second nature to the American Red Cross, so we are always wiping down and sanitizing any donor-touched areas, wear gloves as usual, we use sterile kits. So all these safety protocols are just a little more heightened now, of course,” De La Torre said.

“The need for blood is constant, and we will continue throughout this outbreak to try to convey this message for those donors to come out and give. Volunteer donors are the only source of blood for those patients in need,” she said.

Blood shortages can also impact victims of car accidents and other emergencies, open heart surgery patients, and babies in the NICU, among others.

De La Torre said the community, as it usually does in hard times, is beginning to respond to the call to donate.

“In times like this, you see just that humanity come out in the public. And that’s across the board as far as any national disasters that we have. And we have seen a huge response, so we are trying to add blood drives and longer hours as much as we can to keep up with the demand. However, there’s still those cancellations of blood drives,” De La Torre said.

She encourages those already planning to host blood drives not to cancel them.

Those who want to donate on their own can sign up for an appointment to visit a donation center near them by visiting redcrossblood.org or calling 1-800-733-2767.

Appointments are preferable so Red Cross workers can prepare and follow social distancing requirements.

Phlebotomist Jake Erickson assists Robert Caitlin after a blood donation at American Red Cross in Murray on Monday, March 23, 2020. | Ivy Ceballo, Deseret News