CAPITAL REGION — The severe winter weather and deadly flu season are hurting the region’s blood supplies, prompting a renewed call by the Red Cross for donations.
“All blood types are needed right now,” said Patty Corvaia, a Red Cross spokeswoman. “In particular, O-negative is needed because it is universal.”
The Red Cross must collect more than 13,000 units of blood and platelet donations daily across the nation in order to maintain a safe supply. When the Red Cross declares a critical need for blood, elective surgeries sometimes get canceled so hospitals can ensure they have enough to deal with emergency situations.
The last numbers seen by Corvaia showed that the reduction in donations, blamed on weather and flu concerns, has left the Red Cross 17,000 units short of its goal. More than 100 blood drives were canceled in February alone, because of weather, according to the Red Cross.
“Blood and platelet donations are being distributed to hospitals faster than they are coming in,” said Kimmy Venter, Red Cross regional spokeswoman.
In the winter months, with the holidays, seasonal illnesses and weather conditions, the Red Cross usually sees a decrease in donations. This is worse.
“We came out of the holiday season already in a deficit, and the cold weather and the flu has hit us hard,” Corvaia said.
Due to the seasonal nature of donations, the Red Cross keeps a full schedule of donation events, so that if some are canceled by weather conditions, donations can be made up quickly.
Jake Henk (left) and Jose Diaz. (Taylor Farnsworth)
The American Red Cross Blood Donation Center on Everett Road in Albany holds ongoing hours for donations, as well.
“Blood is perishable,” Corvaia said. “Red blood cells have a shelf life of 42 days, and platelets must be used within five days of donating.”
Donated blood rarely goes unused long enough to expire, Corvaia said. And any time the New York/Pennsylvania region logs an excess in units, they send blood to other regions that need it.
“We focus on community needs first, but if there are additional units, since we are a national network and an export region, your donation could go to another part of the country,” she said.
The blood drives that the Red Cross has been able to hold this winter have often been poorly attended because of fears about road conditions and the flu. The summer months bring their own challenges, since around a quarter of all units come through donation events at high schools and colleges. When those institutions go on break, the Red Cross is affected.
Students, faculty and neighbors of Schenectady County Community College came out to donate blood on Tuesday in a small room inside the Begley Library.
Utilizing an app
Among the donors at the SCCC drive were Jake Henk and Jose Diaz, both freshmen at the college. For Diaz, it was his eighth time donating, but for Henk, it was a first.
“My first experience was pretty good,” Henk said. “They made it very simple, and it’s pretty painless.”
Diaz said the overall donation process took about 45 minutes from start to finish. He signed up to donate using the Red Cross smartphone app that morning. The app’s rapid pass option lets donors complete paperwork online prior to arriving at the drive, thereby speeding up the process.
Filling out the questions and forms on the app takes about 10 to 15 minutes.
The Red Cross has strict restrictions on when individuals can donate blood, platelets, plasma or do a “double red” donation. Donors who have given platelets must wait at least three days before being eligible to donate again. Whole blood donors must wait 56 days, and those who opt to give plasma can do so every 28 days. Double red donations can be made every 112 days.
The Red Cross encourages those with rare blood types — O-negative, O-positive, and A- or B-negative — to do double red donations, whereby they give two units of red cells, rather than just one.
The process is different than for a typical donation: Once the blood has been drawn, red cells are separated from the plasma and the plasma is put back into the donor.
“[Donating blood] is the easiest thing you can do to save a life,” said Rodney MacNeil, a Red Cross team supervisor. “It doesn’t cost you a nickle; you’ll feel good after you do it, and you are potentially saving three lives with just one donation.”