There were 5,000 first-time donors in the Northern Ohio Region in September.
By WILLIAM K. ALCORN
VINDICATOR STAFF WRITER
CLEVELAND -- The flood of first-time blood donors triggered by the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks has quickly become a trickle in Trumbull, Mahoning and Columbiana counties and across the nation.
Just four months after the attacks in New York, Washington, D.C., and Pennsylvania, blood supply levels are back to their pre-Sept. 11 levels, Red Cross officials say.
Some, maybe much, of that downward trend is because of the public perception that the Red Cross mishandled some of the blood donated after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, believes David Plate, executive director of American Red Cross Blood Services, Northern Ohio Region.
Here's the goal: Plate, based in Cleveland, said it is a misperception that blood was mishandled, but readily acknowledged that the effect of the perception is real. He said the Red Cross is trying hard to reverse the public's negative mind-set.
After Sept. 11, it was widely reported that the Red Cross collected too much blood and had to throw 49,000 pints away because blood, particularly the platelet component, has a limited shelf life.
The shelf life of refrigerated red cells is 42 days; platelets, five days; and plasma, up to a year.
The Red Cross routinely freezes some rare blood types such as O-negative, the only blood type everyone can receive. And, after Sept. 11, some other types were also frozen. Frozen blood has a 10-year shelf life, but the disadvantage is that the blood is not immediately available because it takes 24 hours to thaw, Plate said.
Routinely, less than 3 percent of the units of blood collected become outdated and are not used. And, though 49,000 sounds high, given the large number of pints collected, it is within the norm, Plate said.
"People wanted to donate immediately [after Sept. 11]. It was their way of mending America," Plate said.
But, he said, the news that some blood was discarded produced an angry reaction from donors.
"Immediately, donations began to fall off," Plate said, and the goals in October, November and December were not met in the Northern Ohio Region.
What happened: Plate said September was the first time in the nine years he has been executive director of the region that he did not worry about a low blood supply.
In October, Plate said the Northern Ohio Region intentionally "managed down" the blood supply by curtailing mailings and telerecruiting, and came in about 200 pints short of the goal.
However, the November and December goals were not met despite increased mailing and telerecruiting efforts to attract donors.
November's goal was 17,797 pints, but only 17,084 were collected. Similarly, in December, the goal of 17,073 was missed by 760 pints, resulting in a shortfall of blood.
"I believe people have lost confidence. We need 900 units per day for the 61 hospitals that depend on us," Plate said.
"Ideally, I'd like to have a three-day inventory of 600 units, but I can live with a one-day supply of 200," Plate said.
But as of 2 p.m. Tuesday, Plate had 67 platelet units on hand. A one-day supply of the universal O-negative blood for the Northern Ohio Region is 75 units.
"At this moment, I have 20 units of O-negative in inventory," he said.
One of the reasons the Red Cross collected so much blood immediately after the Sept. 11 attacks is that President Bush asked it to, Plate said.
"At the time, there was no way to know how much blood would be needed," he said.
In September, the Northern Ohio Region exceeded its goal by more than 5,000 units.
"Our September goal was 18,000 units and we collected over 23,000," he said.
Plate said some measures were taken to not collect too much blood. For several weeks, regular drives were cut off when their normal goals were reached and people were asked to donate another time.
"We walk a fine line between not having enough blood and having too much," he said.
"If America had only a three-day supply of petroleum or wheat, we'd declare an emergency," he said.
"I'm not comfortable [with the low supply] but I don't know what else we can do. Our people are putting in long days," he said.
"We worked very hard to take care of people and now our staff is the target of the public's wrath," he said.
Plate is concerned about how long the public's disaffection will continue.
The hope, he said, is that with a "persistently calm, reassuring, truthful message, we will earn back the trust, we will turn this tide."