ÖOur region is thirsty for blood. On a typical day, Vitalant Pittsburgh (formerly Central Blood Bank) sees 250 blood donors. It takes 600 donors to meet local blood needs. “Our region collects less than half of what we need. People’s jaws drop when we say this, ”said Mark Giaquinto, president and chief financial officer of the Green Tree-based Blood Science Foundation (BSF), the fundraising arm of Vitalant, the predominant supplier of blood products to 50 hospitals in the West of Pennsylvania, east Ohio, and north-west Virginia, including all Allegheny Heath Network (AHN) and UPMC facilities.
There are two main reasons for our local blood shortages: an aging population and globally recognized health care. “For cities of a comparable size, we use more blood than our competitors. We have top notch hospitals and people from all over the world come for transplants, cancer treatments, child care and many conditions that require blood transfusions, ”says Giaquinto. “The aging baby boomer population in southwest Pennsylvania, who are loyal blood donors, is leaving the ranks of donors and becoming users faster than the younger generation is replacing them. Over the past decade we’ve seen a sharp decrease – around 50 percent – in blood donations. We have fallen by 30 percent in the last 5 years. “
Dr. Alan Murdock, trauma surgeon at Allegheny General Hospital, says, “We never want to get to the point where lack of blood forces us to postpone treatments and operations, but that’s a very real possibility. Many people do not realize that it is the blood that is already present in the hospital that is helping us save lives because donated blood takes about 48 hours to examine and process and it is important to have blood available in advance of an emergency . “
Business with blood
Blood donation in America began in the 1940s. For a while, some blood donation centers paid people to donate. But that stopped when it was associated with drug or alcohol addicts, as depicted in old films. It’s not illegal to pay for blood in the United States, but the Food and Drug Administration is
(FDA) requires that blood donations be labeled as being from a paid or voluntary donor, and hospitals don’t want to use blood from paid donors as the World Health Organization says it’s not that safe. The WHO states: “Having a stable base of regular, voluntary, unpaid blood donors … is the safest donor group as the prevalence of blood-borne infections is lowest in this group. “Donors can donate a pint of blood every 56 days and constant supply is required as blood has a shelf life of 42 days. Only 40 percent of the US population are eligible to donate, and of that group only 10 percent donate blood. “There is no substitute for blood,” says Dr. Kim Ritchey, a pediatric hematologist / oncologist (blood disease and cancer specialist) at UPMC Children’s Hospital in Pittsburgh. “Through Vitalant we are completely dependent on generous people who are willing to give a part of themselves in order to save or improve the lives of others.”
Our region’s for-profit plasma centers, which people pay for the yellow fluid in their blood that is used in medicines, compete with Vitalant. And while the American Red Cross also competes for unpaid blood donors in our region, Giaquinto states: “When the going gets tough, we all step on and move the blood when it comes to life or death.”
Central Blood Bank began serving our region in the 1950s. In 2017, with blood shortages mounting, she looked for “a partner bigger than us to make sure we had a steady blood supply. We had a couple of failed fusion attempts. We looked at a few companies and nothing seemed to work for all of them, ”says Giaquinto, who was then CFO of the Institute for Transfusion Medicine, the parent company of Central Blood Bank. After all, they were a good fit at Vitalant, the United States’s largest independent not-for-profit blood collection company based in Arizona. In 2018, Central Blood Bank became known as Vitalant Pittsburgh and was part of an agency serving 30 states. UPMC, AHN and other hospitals in the region do not have to postpone elective operations, assures Giaquinto: “If Vitalant does not have blood locally, it imports it from other parts of the country at a cost of 10 to 20 million US dollars a year.”
The pandemic brought another unexpected expense. From June through December, the Blood Science Foundation spent nearly $ 500,000 testing blood for COVID-19 antibodies. This is the first step in qualifying a blood donor as a donor of convalescent plasma that has been approved by the FDA to treat patients with severe COVID. Vitalant has partnered with UPMC and AHN to collect and distribute 1,200 units of convalescent plasma. Vitalant planned to continue the free antibody testing through June 2021.
Pandemic brings innovative thinking
In May 2019, Vitalant launched an awareness campaign funded by the Blood Science Foundation (BSF) from the Highmark Foundation, UPMC, the Richard King Mellon Foundation, and an anonymous donor. In the next year, blood donations rose 6 percent, the first sustained increase in over a decade. Then COVID arrived. Donations fell 9 percent as schools and offices (often the site of mobile blood donation drives) sent students and workers home. But there is hope. In the past few months, Vitalant has attracted 42 new groups of blood donors to donate through its Save Lives / Feed Families program. This initiative was started with funds from BSF and Vitalant cooperates with local charities that were also negatively affected by the pandemic. For every blood donation collected through certain blood donation drives, a monetary donation of US $ 12 will be made to a local food bank. “The younger generation is not afraid to be philanthropic and donate to organizations that are important to them,” says Giaquinto. The program evolves into Give Blood & Give Back by partnering with other charities that benefit veterans, youth development, the environment and the arts. “We hope this can fill the void COVID has created from both a blood draw and fundraising perspective and become a successful long-term part of our overall fundraising strategy,” says Giaquinto. Learn more at vitalant.org/feedfamilies.