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The home for VPR's coverage of health and health industry issues affecting the state of Vermont.

'Critical' Blood Shortage Comes Down To Weather, Flu And Supply Chain

A sign for a blood drive in Northampton, Massachusetts.
Karen Brown
A sign for a blood drive in Northampton, Massachusetts.

The American Red Cross has raised the alert on its blood supply to "critical" -- the last step before "emergency."

Officials are blaming flu and bad weather for keeping donors at home, but some researchers also point to changes in the blood economy. 

To keep up with normal demand, the Red Cross has to collect 372 units of blood in Massachusetts every day.

But this season they’re falling short, said Red Cross spokesperson Kelly Isenor.

In the past month, the organization has canceled 28 blood drives in the state, which equals about 750 donations.

Isenor said the winter holidays are always slow for blood collection.

"Then on top of that, in January, we've already had a bomb cyclone, and a couple big snowstorms. The flu season is not good,” she said. “So it's just sort of all these things are a perfect storm right now."

And because blood is perishable, it can't be stockpiled, which makes seasonal fluctuations even more tricky.

But UMass management professor Anna Nagurney said there's additional pressure on the blood supply.

Overall, hospitals are buying less from blood banks, also called donor centers. That's partly because new surgical techniques don't require as much blood, and because some hospitals do their own collections.

The result, Nagurney said, is that many donor centers have shut down or consolidated, "and if there are fewer points, then obviously it's less convenient for people, so you're less likely to get the donors."

She said leaving the ebb and flow of blood donations up to weather, or how bad the flu season is, could make the region even more vulnerable if there's a natural disaster or mass shooting.

Nagurney would like to see the government subsidize donor centers, which also take on the cost of screening out new diseases like Zika.

"[Donor centers] are essentially treading water," Nagurney said. "They've lost a lot of money because of all these new challenges. And at the same time, they should be innovating. Because blood is such an unusual product. It can't be manufactured."

Most other New England states have also canceled blood drives in January, according to the Red Cross. Vermont is the only state that's kept collecting throughout the storms.  

Copyright 2021 New England Public Media. To see more, visit New England Public Media.

Karen is a radio and print journalist who focuses on health care, mental health, children’s issues, and other topics about the human condition. She has been a full-time radio reporter since for New England Public Radio since 1998. Her pieces have won a number of national awards, including the National Edward R. Murrow Award, Public Radio News Directors, Inc. (PRNDI) Award, and the Erikson Prize for Mental Health Reporting for her body of work on mental illness.
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