Winter weather could cause blood shortage

Published 12:01 am Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Although the American Red Cross and LifeSouth aren’t currently experiencing a shortage of blood at this time, officials said Tuesday that could soon change.

“Really going into January, it’s the worst month of the year for collections throughout most of our centers,” said Daniel Hewett, Life South regional manager for the Wiregrass area. “Going into this week, and as we pull through the rough weather, we’re going to see shortages in all types.”

“We don’t know how much impact the current spate of severe winter weather will have on our collections,” Evan Duffy, Red Cross communications manager said. “So in a few weeks time we may be at that point. We just know at this time of the year, things can change quickly, so we try to head off future shortages when that potential exists.”

Duffy said O negative blood is critical to the health care system because it’s the universal donor, which means that O negative blood can be transfused into most patients regardless of an individual patient’s blood type.

“This versatility makes it extremely important in ER and trauma settings,” he said. “For example, say I’m driving to Andalusia and have a severe accident that leaves me injured and unconscious. When I arrive at the ER, doctors can transfuse me with O negative to sustain my life without taking the valuable time to conduct a type test to give me a perfect match.”

Additionally, from time to time, hospitals run short on one type or another, and in these cases O negative blood can be substituted for other types in life or death situations.

“Because of the flexibility in the use of O negative blood, hospitals like to make sure they have an adequate supply on hand at all times,” Duffy said.

Both Hewett and Duffy said the holiday season brings about shortages because blood donation is not high on donors’ priority lists.

“From Thanksgiving on through the beginning of January, we in the blood services industry have traditionally seen a prolonged holiday period that results in decreased collections,” Duffy said. “First of all, students in high school and college are out of class, and they represent about 21 percent of our total collections. Obviously, when the students aren’t in class during the holiday period, we’re down a fifth of our usual collections.”

Hewett said LifeSouth sent out an emergency appeal for O negative blood due to the holidays.

“We had gotten to the point where our hospitals had blood on their shelves, but we had nothing,” he said. “Everything we were collecting was going right back into the hospitals.”

Duffy said that during the travel season, there is a modest spike in the demand, but in January there was a large spike.

“This stems from the fact that most people who are advised that they need an elective surgery will put it off over the holidays,” he said. “After all, no one wants to be laid up for Christmas and New Year’s. However, on the first Monday of January, we traditionally receive more requests for blood than on any other single day of the year.”

Duffy said these factors combined lead to shortages of critical types like O negative during the winter.

“We do our best to prepare a game plan around the lessons that history has taught us,” he said. “But wildcards like the weather, and waves of flu and other sicknesses can throw even the most well-planned strategy off kilter.”