Michigan blood banks, hospitals, face donor shortage

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Capital News Service 

LANSING — As Michigan residents brave icy roads and winter weather, making the trek to a blood drive isn’t at the top of their mind.

Blood donations normally fall during December and January since consistent donors are often on vacation and schools that might hold blood drives are on winter break. 

Even now that students and holiday travelers have returned home, recent bad weather has extended the usual donor shortage. Blood banks and the hospitals they serve are feeling the effects.

“Our national blood supply still remains at critically low levels,” said David Olejarz, the regional communications director for the American Red Cross based in Detroit. “We’ve had blood drives canceled in nearly every state where the Red Cross collects blood, primarily due to the severe weather that we’ve seen across the country.”

Nearly a dozen Red Cross drives were canceled in the state in a recent week, resulting in a shortage of 285 expected units of blood, Olejarz said.

The weather also has made it difficult to transport blood from blood banks to the hospitals that use them, Olejarz said.

Mitch Moosavi, the medical director of transfusion services for the Sparrow Health System based in Lansing, said blood shortages can postpone surgeries and delay when patients can go home.

“A lot of times, blood is moved regionally across the United States, and if we have flights being canceled, that may impact components of our inventory,” Moosavi said. “That forces us into the difficult position of trying to figure out which patients need blood products the most, and which ones can wait until more product arrives.”

Dina Aper, the laboratory manager for MyMichigan Health’s medical centers in Alma and Mt. Pleasant, says her hospital system gets “really nervous, especially around the holidays.”

“None of us have been able to get the amount of blood that we actually want,” Aper said. “When patients get into a car accident and they need blood urgently, we’re not able to do the typical testing on that patient that we normally would.”

Although the blood shortage is nationwide, some blood banks are better off than others.

The Red Cross recently sent a national emergency appeal warning the shortage “may delay medical procedures.” 

However, its Michigan competitor, Grand Rapids-based Versiti Blood Center, never reached inventory levels low enough to prompt an emergency appeal, despite facing the same problems. Versiti is also a nonprofit organization.

“We were able to continue to meet the needs of our hospitals,” Kristin Paltzer, the public relations manager for Versiti, said.

“We take a very local approach,” Paltzer said. “Because we are serving local hospitals and hosting drives in our local communities, that’s how we have been able to manage the availability (of blood), at least this season.”

Blood donated to Versiti in Michigan stays in Michigan, she said.

The American Red Cross, on the other hand, has a different distribution method. “Because we’re a national network, the blood goes where it’s needed,” Olejarz said. 

Moosavi said he still trusts the organization’s judgment, even though Sparrow Health has been adversely affected by the Red Cross’s delivery methods before.

“If there’s a significant blood shortage in, let’s say, California, or there’s a natural disaster, like a hurricane in Florida, we understand the need to move blood products to those high-risk areas to help patients,” Moosavi said. “And we understand that that sometimes impacts our patients as well.”

Pathologist Kyle Carr, the laboratory medical director for Cadillac Hospital, attributed his institution’s current success in navigating the shortage largely to good communication with its vendor, Versiti, and proximity to donation sites.

“They’ve been really great about keeping us supplied and informing us when things are getting short,” Carr said. “We communicate to the best of our abilities that we may have issues.”

William Kanner, a pathologist and the blood bank director for Munson Healthcare, added that the closest Red Cross fixed site to Cadillac is in Petoskey, while Versiti has one in Traverse City. Versiti has 10 fixed locations in the state, while the Red Cross has eight. 

There are 13 Versiti blood drives scheduled in the Cadillac area in the next 30 days, Carr said.

“They work really, really hard to make it as easy as possible for people who want to donate blood,” Carr said.

Aper attributes the difference in how hospitals are handling the shortage to how much blood they use. She says some communities may see fewer cases than others of blood disorders, cancer or other traumas that require blood. 

Moosavi said city hospitals often handle more “blood-heavy” surgeries.

Red Cross and Versiti are aligned in a similar cause: getting people to donate blood.

Paltzer said, “It’s something very simple that we all can do. It doesn’t take a lot of time or effort. If you’re afraid of needles, don’t be. They’ll take good care of you.”

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