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California and the West

Blood Banks Appeal for Donors

Emergencies: Supplies are critically low because of widespread flu and holiday vacations, officials say.

January 07, 1998|JULIE MARQUIS and TONY PERRY | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

With their faithful suppliers felled by the flu or held hostage by the holidays, Southern California blood banks are facing critical shortages and have issued emergency appeals for donors.

The deficiency appears to be worst in this region, but also is affecting the East Coast and to a lesser extent the rest of the country, officials said.

Although donations typically dip during the holiday season, this year's dive has been steeper than some banks have seen in 15 or 20 years, partly because of the severity of flu and cold outbreaks and partly because many donors made long weekends out of Christmas and New Year's breaks, officials reported.

The Southern California office of the American Red Cross reported Monday that it had 9% of the desired supply of O positive blood, 3% of O negative blood, 40% of B positive blood, 5% of B negative blood and 12% of A negative blood. There is a special need for Type O, which is the type of nearly half the population and can function as a "universal" type for most patients in emergencies.

"What really concerns me is that when our levels get to as low as they are now, there really is no room for emergencies," said Rich Krieg, chief operating officer at the American Red Cross Blood Services, which supplies 150 hospitals in Los Angeles, Orange and San Diego counties.

"We're at about half of where we were last year" for Type O blood, Krieg said.

Although Krieg said he is not aware of hospitals supplied by his organization postponing elective surgeries, it remains a distinct possibility if the shortage persists. It has already happened in the Inland Empire.

"We've had a couple hospitals postpone elective surgeries. We've had a couple of life-threatening situations" in which hospitals did not have enough blood for emergency patients requiring O negative blood, said Tammy Rotellini, spokeswoman for the Blood Bank of San Bernardino and Riverside Counties.

Rotellini said that the bank was able, at the last minute, to obtain blood from other hospitals for the patients requiring surgery.

Officials for the nation's two largest blood bank networks said large cities on both coasts have been seriously affected by blood shortages. East Coast banks are hurting less from influenza than from the onslaught of storms last week and from donors' absences during the extended weekends, they said.

"Right now, although we're able to keep hospitals supplied, more than half our [28] regions have less than a day's supply of O negative and O positive blood," said Michael Fulwider, spokesman for the American Red Cross in Washington. The goal is to have three days' supply on hand at all times.

The shortage "is having a huge impact, especially in Southern California," said Melissa McMillan, spokeswoman for America's Blood Centers, which includes 450 community blood centers nationwide. "In the heartland, they have low supplies, but aren't in critical need. Both coasts are in critical need."

McMillan said blood banks depend most heavily on corporate blood drives to replenish their supplies, but these are difficult to schedule around the holidays.

According to Krieg, the problem in Southern California is particularly bad in part because so few people donate, regardless of the season. Only about 3% of the population gives blood, he said, compared with more than 10% in other parts of the country. Forty percent of the region's blood must be imported from other areas.

Some of the reluctance to donate seems to be related to misconceptions--the idea that donation puts one at risk for infectious diseases, or that it leads to weight gain, he said. In particular, Krieg said, his organization is campaigning to increase donations among Latinos, who make up about 40% of the population but only 17% of donors.

Even though donors often are willing to respond in emergencies, it takes 24 to 36 hours for blood to be processed and tested before it can be placed on the shelf.

The shortage at the San Diego Blood Bank, a nonprofit organization supplying 51 hospitals in San Diego, Imperial, Orange and Los Angeles counties, is the worst in two decades.

Even the annual December blood drive headlined by members of the San Diego Chargers football team was not enough to change the overall decline in the bank's supplies. The drive brought a record amount of blood (2,201 pints) during the week before Christmas, but demand quickly outstripped supply.

"Our supplies are just getting lower, lower and lower," said spokeswoman Faith Saculles. "We're getting to the dangerous level."

The bank considers a "safety level" for O positive blood to be 250 pints. The bank now has 10 pints. The safety level for O negative, the so-called universal donor, is 65 pints. The bank has three.

Supplies also are running low at the Naval Medical Center San Diego, which serves the region's military community, including active duty personnel, retirees and family members. Bloodmobiles are visiting military bases in search of donors.

The inventory at Ventura County's only blood bank, United Blood Services, is 60% of normal.

"A lot of people are down ill, which means they can't donate, and it's just nailed us in the last two weeks," said spokeswoman Patty Hunt.

United Blood Services has spared hospitals from experiencing a blood crunch by importing supplies from its branches throughout the country, Hunt said.

Those interested in donating blood may call the Red Cross at 800 GIVELIFE or community blood banks at (888) BLOOD88.

Times correspondent Robert Gammon contributed to this story.

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