Holidays, winter storm diminish local, Red Cross blood supplies

Our Blood Institute, 149 Section Line Road, Suite G, has issued a call for donations as soon as road conditions allow after running low due to the holidays and donation cancellations caused by the winter weather. (The Sentinel-Record/Lance Brownfield)
Our Blood Institute, 149 Section Line Road, Suite G, has issued a call for donations as soon as road conditions allow after running low due to the holidays and donation cancellations caused by the winter weather. (The Sentinel-Record/Lance Brownfield)

An outbreak of winter weather, coming on the heels of the holiday season has had a devastating effect on blood donation.

Josh Gwin, communications strategist for OBI Arkansas said Tuesday that the organization's board has determined that blood supplies in Arkansas have reached a critically low level.

"Since [Monday]," Gwin said, "leadership went ahead and decided to declare a full-blown blood emergency. We're in what we call an appeal as of [Tuesday], which means that we are down to a one- to two-day supply of blood for our area hospitals."

John Brimley, a spokesperson for the American Red Cross in Arkansas, said that blood supplies all over the country have fallen to critically low levels, partly due to the holidays and severe winter weather, but he said part of the shortfall is because blood donations overall have fallen about 40% over the past 20 years.

Brimley said that currently, the demand for blood by hospitals throughout the country has outstripped supply to the point that the Red Cross has had to limit distribution of type O blood products.

With 16 centers across Arkansas, Oklahoma and Texas, OBI is down about 3,000 units from the 6,000 units usually kept in stock across all branches. That's only a two or three day supply. In Arkansas, about 1,500 units are needed to replenish the stock.

As OBI has taken over as the blood provider for more than 240 hospitals in the tri-state area in 2016, where the Red Cross used to operate, Gwin says Arkansas imports blood each year to meet the goal of about 78,000 units needed annually.

Currently, OBI collects about 65,000 units annually, importing the rest from its network in Oklahoma, but there has been a steady increase in regular donors over time as people become more aware and find donation locations.

Part of the reason for the shortage, Gwin said, is the recent holiday season, during which time he said blood donations typically fall off due to people traveling. He said winter weather can also affect donations due to hazardous driving conditions and school closures caused by inclement weather.

"We get a lot of donations from school blood drives and, also, the weather makes it clearly unsafe for people to drive," he said. "For that reason, blood drives are canceling and it puts us further and further behind."

Brimley said during January, 260 blood drives across the country had to be canceled due to weather, resulting in a shortfall of some 8,000 units of blood.

"We've also had to cancel some blood drives here in Arkansas because of the weather as well," he said.

Because of the short shelf life of whole blood, Gwin said, it is impractical to stockpile blood supplies beyond what current needs demand.

"Blood can't be frozen so it does no good to overcollect it," he said. "So in situations like this, in order to recoup quickly and make sure hospitals have what they need so they're not canceling surgeries, putting patients off or having to triage blood, we'll go into these full blown appeals and ask everyone who is able and willing to come out to a blood drive or a donation center and donate just as soon as they possibly can. The quicker we can do this over the next two weeks the quicker we can get out of this hole."

Gwin says transfusible blood can't be paid for in the United States, meaning blood for hospitals has to be donated at centers like the ones run by OBI.

Our Blood Institute Arkansas operates five donation centers in Arkansas, located in Little Rock, North Little Rock, Hot Springs, Russellville and Fort Smith.

Gwin said over the next two weeks, OBI Arkansas will be conducting a number of pop-up blood drives around the state. He said up-to-date information regarding those pop-up blood drives and the locations of donation centers in Arkansas, Texas and Oklahoma are available online at www.obi.org/where.

"People can click on the 'Find a Mobile Blood Drive' to see if there's a mobile blood drive in their area if they aren't near a donation center," he said. "We cover 85% of the state and all of the major hospitals in the state of Arkansas and we'll be putting up pop-up blood drives all over the state over the next couple of weeks so people can go to that link and find one convenient for them."

There are three Red Cross centers in Arkansas, located in Little Rock, Rogers and Jonesboro. Two of those centers, Rogers and Jonesboro, also act as blood donation centers.

Brimley said donations to the Red Cross are placed into the national blood supply.

"What that means is if there is a traumatic event here where we need blood," he said, "blood will be supplied from Arkansas or it could come from New York or anywhere else there is a supply that we need. Or vice-versa in the event of a traumatic event anywhere else in the country. If they need blood then we're able to supply it as well. That gives us nationwide flexibility, which is important because the Red Cross accounts for about 40% of the nation's overall blood supply."

To find out about scheduled American Red Cross blood drives, go to redcrossblood.org and type in your zip code in the box in the upper right corner of the page.

Information for this report was provided by Lance Brownfield of The Sentinel-Record.

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