Federal shutdown threatens to shortchange blood banks

A Red Cross worker prepares to extract blood from a donor.

One week after the national government shut down over budget negotiations, blood banks across the country are weighing a looming deficit of their own.

Even though the blood banks themselves aren't federal operations, government agencies partner with blood banks -- specifically on convincing more Americans to donate blood.

Blood banks have set up mobile donation drives, where they transport all the necessary equipment to an office or location, and then woo donors on site. Mobile donation tours, especially at government offices, have become a mainstay of some centers’ annual calendars -- and with workers staying at home, drives in cities from San Francisco to northern Virginia have been canceled, raising concern that a prolonged shutdown could leave hospitals dry.

According to the American Red Cross, which itself accounts for 40 percent of the nation’s blood supply, there is a "constant need" for blood donations. Supplies dropped to precarious levels as recently as July 2013. Though no hospitals report a shortage yet, Red Cross communications officer Karen Stecher says they are "monitoring the situation."

"During the month of October, approximately 260 Red Cross blood drives were scheduled at military and government offices across the country, and more than 9,000 donors were expected to roll up a sleeve and give blood at these drives. To date, 14 blood drives have been canceled, resulting in about 400 uncollected blood donations," Stecher said.

Federal donations account for 3 percent of the Red Cross’ total collections. Smaller organizations, however, also worry about a prolonged disruption to their line-up. The Stanford Blood Center in northern California had to call off a long-standing drive on the NASA Ames Research Center campus. Stanford Blood Center spokesperson Deanna Bolio says one missed mobile session won’t make or break their totals for the year, but they decided to reach out on social media to make up the 75 lost units.

"Many people have said, 'Oh, it wouldn’t occur to me that blood drives would be a consequence of the shutdown," Bolio said. "[But] it’s always difficult for us. It’s always a grind, to get enough people to come in and donate, to take an hour to get stuck with a needle."

Charlene Smith, regional donor recruitment manager for United Blood Services in New Mexico, doesn't worry about the fallout from a few cancellations. Her organization, however, has a month’s worth of upcoming drives that depend on federal workers -- a potential shortfall of 120 units of blood.

"We worry every single day no matter what. Any of our blood drives have the potential to be canceled for a number of reasons -- weather, the number of sign ups, flu ­-- so we do have a Plan B always in our back pocket," Smith said. "When we know a blood drive has been canceled, we let the community know we’re looking at a deficit, and reach out."

When disruptions struck in the past, United Blood Services have turned to their "sister centers" for help. 

"I can't speak for any other centers. But the whole nation isn't always impacted by the same thing at the same time," Smith said. "So, say we have bad weather and need supplies, but in Houston, they’re having great weather. We help each other. We don’t hoard it all, we share resources, and fortunately there are different climates. Hurricanes, tornadoes, flooding - it’s not usually everybody being impacted by exact same thing."

And if the government stays shut? Expect a direct appeal to the eligible O+ private citizens.

"All eligible donors are urged to make an appointment to give," Stecher said.


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