HEALTH

Officials Draw Attention to Chronic Blood Shortage

Health and Senior Services Commissioner Mary E. O’Dowd talks about the chronic shortage of blood in New Jersey at a blood drive in Mount Holly Monday. She encourages residents to donate blood. Photo courtesy of Donna Leusner.

By Michelle Sartor

Many blood banks in New Jersey are in desperate need of donations to help curb the chronic blood shortage in the state. The state’s hospitals often have less than a two-day supply of blood on hand and blood centers must import product from other states to meet the demand.

Health and Senior Services Commissioner Mary E. O’Dowd visited a blood drive in Mount Holly Monday to bring attention to the problem. Those involved in the blood centers throughout the state said they’re always on the lookout for new donors and constantly involved in the recruitment process.

January is National Blood Donor Month, and typically sees fewer blood donations as it comes on the heels of the holiday season. Donors must be at least 16 years old, weigh at least 110 pounds and be in good health. Sixty percent of New Jersey adults qualify to give blood, but only 3.6 percent donate, less than the 5 percent national average.

Dennis Todd, president and CEO of Community Blood Services based in Paramus, said he believes the reason New Jerseyans don’t donate as much as others around the country is multifaceted. He said with the changing demographics older donors are moving out of state and are not being replaced with people who choose to donate. Corporate downsizing has also led to a decline in donations both because there are fewer employees to donate during corporate blood drives and also because those employees that remain take on more responsibilities and don’t have the time. Todd also said travel deferrals decrease the number of donations in the state.

CEO of Central Jersey Blood Center Mike Clark said another reason for the statewide shortage is that blood collection groups like the Philadelphia Red Cross and the New York Blood Center accept donations in New Jersey, leaving fewer donations for the local blood banks to keep in-state.

Todd said he has seen a decline in donations for the past three years from about 40,000 units of red blood cells to 35,000 units. The decline is especially problematic because Community Blood Services distributes 85,000 units of blood. Because of the discrepancy, Todd said his organization must import blood from other states like Iowa and Kansas, along with others on the West Coast, to meet the demand.

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Even with imports, hospitals still can run low on blood, which affects operations.

“New Jersey hospitals need blood every single day, but there are some days where blood supplies in New Jersey reach alarming lows,” said New Jersey Hospital Association President Betsy Ryan. “When that happens, our hospitals may be forced to ration blood. With a limited blood supply, emergency procedures receive priority and elective surgeries would be curtailed. In extreme shortages, some procedures may need to be canceled and emergency departments would have to divert patients.”

While many blood banks in the state are seeing shortages, Clark said Central Jersey Blood Center in Shrewsbury collects enough blood for his demand. He said his center advertises with local radio and television stations and has an active tele-recruitment department that is able to bring in sufficient donors. He admits, however, that the summer months can be difficult, as well as the holidays.

Clark said his facility has seen donations increase over the past five years. His secret? “You have to ask the donor and thank the donor,” he said. “Then they’ll come back and donate again.”

It isn’t always that easy, though. Todd said Community Blood Services uses its tele-recruitment department extensively to get the word out, as well as social media sites Facebook and Twitter. He said raising awareness of the ongoing shortage is critical and hopes the attention from government officials will help the public recognize that they should be donating blood on a regular basis instead of waiting for a crisis. He said the average donor to his facility donates 1.6 times per year and he’d like that to increase.

To help bring donors in, most blood centers offer various incentives, such as gift cards to area restaurants. There are specific rules from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) limiting the amount and type of incentives, however.

“We cannot purchase anything to give away because the FDA strictly regulates us. We do have gift cards, but when we do gift cards, they’re usually donated,” said Tony DeLuccio of Community Blood Council of New Jersey in Trenton. “Those we can give out based on what they want us to use them for. The FDA says that if we give out stuff like that it can be looked at as possibly purchasing blood and that’s illegal in this state.”

For the most part, blood centers rely on the generosity of donors and try to schedule as many blood drives as possible at businesses and high schools in their areas. Several said they have many dedicated donors, particularly for platelets, which help with the clotting process. Platelets are often used for cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy, which affects the bone marrow that produces platelets and red blood cells. Todd said platelets are only viable for five days so they constantly must be replenished. In addition, donations have to go through two days of testing, so the shelf life dwindles to three days. Community Blood Services received 8,000 units of platelets but had to import 12,000 units to meet the demand.

“When you go to the hospital and you need blood, or platelets, you assume it’s there. You really can’t make that assumption,” said Todd. “We should not just rely on the goodness of people in other parts of the country to donate so they can export it here.”

The New Jersey Department of Health and Senior Services offers a list of blood donation centers that residents can visit.