While the COVID-19 battle takes a toll on the country’s blood supply, a management program in South Texas has uniquely positioned San Antonio to meet demands despite the pandemic keeping donors home.

Many hospitals and blood centers around the country are down to just a two-day supply, said Donald Jenkins, M.D., professor of trauma and emergency surgery at UT Health San Antonio. That’s not the case for San Antonio.

“Nationally, there is a problem,” said Dr. Jenkins, who also serves as vice chair for quality in the Department of Surgery at University Hospital and associate deputy director of UT Health San Antonio’s Military Health Institute. “Locally and regionally we are right where we need to be.”

Still he warned: Blood donations in the city and county are critical, especially now that hospitals are slowly resuming elective surgeries under Gov. Greg Abbott’s most recent executive order.

“They are three or four bleeding cases away from being in that danger zone,” said Dr. Jenkins.

Samantha Gomez Ngamsuntikul, associate medical director of the South Texas Blood & Tissue Center, agreed.

“Elective procedures, including knee replacements, back surgeries and many others once put on hold have now been scheduled, adding to the blood needs beyond emergency use,” she said. “Right now, we are sending out 150 more units of blood every day than we’re bringing in.”

Dr. Jenkins and other military collaborators, researchers and physicians joined forces in 2018 to change emergency response in San Antonio. They brought the idea of using whole blood — which can be transfused in its entirety — to the University Health System.

Today, this life-saving resource is used to treat trauma patients before they reach the hospital in 22 surrounding counties — all part of a partnership under the Southwest Texas Regional Advisory Council and the South Texas Blood & Tissue Center.

Dr. Jenkins said the move to whole blood transfusions not only transformed emergency response in the area, but it also brought together more than 50 hospitals and 70 EMS agencies, creating a broad network of community partners.

“It is an incredible partnership,” he said, adding that the group’s tight management of the area’s blood supply is especially crucial amid a global pandemic.

“At least twice a day, we check the exact whole blood inventory,” he said. “We know every place that has it: Every ambulance. Every hospital. We know when the expiration dates are on that blood product and all of it is proactively managed.”

Officials from the San Antonio Fire Department, aeromedical providers, the U.S. Army, UT Heath San Antonio and University Hospital communicate weekly. They’ve been doing so for more than a year, Dr. Jenkins said.

“As soon as we start to see a downturn in donations, or an uptick in use that causes the blood supply to diminish, everyone knows right away,” he said.

But that hasn’t always been the case.

“Memorial Day last year was the first time the region ran out of whole blood,” Dr. Jenkins said. “There were two bad trauma cases that consumed all the whole blood.”

Blood supplies often fall during the holidays. But on this particular weekend, inventory was already low, and donors missed their appointments, he said.

“It was the perfect storm and we learned the lesson the hard way,” he said. “But by the time the Fourth of July rolled around last year, we had implemented changes and had the problem licked. It hasn’t happened to us again.”

With the devastation of a global pandemic looming, the measures were critical in maintaining the area’s blood supply.

Still, he said: “There are things you can’t control, including hemorrhaging pregnant moms. The No. 2 cause of death related to childbirth is bleeding. It can take sometimes hundreds of units of blood products to get that bleeding under control for one patient.”

For that reason, doctors continue to urge people, including recovered coronavirus patients, to donate blood despite social distance measures.

“Giving blood is a safe action you can take to make a difference,” said Ngamsuntikul. “We’re taking precautions to ensure our donor rooms and blood drives are a healthy environment.”

Read one doctor’s story of a lifetime of giving blood—30 gallons over 50 years.