We Need New Blood
Our region is thirsty for blood. On a typical day, Vitalant Pittsburgh (formerly Central Blood Bank) sees 250 blood donors. It needs 600 donors to meet the local demand for blood. “Our region collects less than half of what we need. People’s jaws drop when we say this,” says Mark Giaquinto, president and chief financial officer for Green Tree-based Blood Science Foundation (BSF), the fundraising arm for Vitalant, the predominant supplier of blood products to 50 hospitals in western Pennsylvania, eastern Ohio and northern West Virginia, including all of Allegheny Heath Network (AHN) and UPMC facilities.
There are two main reasons for our local blood shortfall: an aging population and world-renowned health care. “For comparable-size cities, we use more blood than our peers. We have top-notch hospitals and people come from all over the world for transplants, cancer treatment, pediatric care and many conditions that require blood transfusions,” Giaquinto says. “Southwestern Pennsylvania’s aging baby boomer population, who are loyal blood donors, are leaving the ranks of donors and becoming users faster than the younger generation is replacing them. In the past decade, we’ve seen a big decrease — about 50 percent — in blood donations. We’re down 30 percent in the past 5 years.”
Dr. Alan Murdock, a trauma surgeon at Allegheny General Hospital, says, “We never want to get to the point where a shortage of blood forces us to postpone treatments and surgeries, but that is a very real possibility. Many people don’t realize that it’s the blood that’s already at the hospital that helps us save lives, because it takes about 48 hours to test and process donated blood, and it is critical to have blood available before an emergency.”
Business of blood
Blood donation in America got its start in the 1940s. For a time, some blood centers paid people for their donation. But that stopped when it became associated with those addicted to drugs or alcohol, as depicted in old movies. It’s not illegal to pay for blood in the United States, but the Food and Drug Administration
(FDA) requires blood donation to be labeled as coming from a paid or volunteer donor and hospitals don’t want to use blood from paid donors because the World Health Organization says it’s not as safe. The WHO states, “A stable base of regular, voluntary, unpaid blood donors … is the safest group of donors as the prevalence of bloodborne infections is lowest among this group. ”Donors can give a pint of blood every 56 days and a constant supply is needed as blood has a shelf life of 42 days. Only 40 percent of the U.S. population is 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 disorder and cancer specialist) at UPMC Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh. “Through Vitalant, we depend entirely on generous people who are willing to give part of themselves to save or improve someone else’s life.”
Our region’s for-profit plasma centers, which pay people for their blood’s yellow liquid that is used in pharmaceuticals, are competition for Vitalant. And while the American Red Cross also competes for unpaid blood donors in our region, Giaquinto notes, “When push comes to shove, we all step up and move the blood around when it is a life-or-death situation.”
The Central Blood Bank began serving our region in the 1950s. Facing a widening blood shortage, it went looking in 2017 for “a partner bigger than us to make sure we had a constant supply of blood. We had a couple of failed merger attempts. We looked at a few companies and nothing seemed to work for everyone,” says Giaquinto, who at that time was CFO of the Institute for Transfusion Medicine, the parent company of Central Blood Bank. They finally found a good fit with Vitalant, the largest independent nonprofit blood collection entity in the United States, headquartered in Arizona. In 2018, Central Blood Bank became known as Vitalant Pittsburgh, and part of an agency that serves 30 states. UPMC, AHN and other area hospitals won’t have to postpone elective surgeries, Giaquinto assures: “If Vitalant doesn’t have blood locally, it imports from other parts of the country at a cost of $10–$20 million a year.”
The pandemic brought another unexpected expense. From last June to December, the Blood Science Foundation spent almost $500,000 testing blood for COVID-19 antibodies. This is the first step in qualifying a blood donor as a donor of convalescent plasma, approved by the FDA as a treatment for those with severe COVID. Vitalant partnered with UPMC and AHN to collect and distribute 1,200 units of convalescent plasma. Vitalant planned to continue free antibody testing until June 2021.
Pandemic brings innovative thinking
In May 2019, Vitalant launched an awareness campaign with funding secured by the Blood Science Foundation (BSF) from Highmark Foundation, UPMC, Richard King Mellon Foundation and an anonymous donor. For the next year, blood donations inched up 6 percent, the first sustained increase in over a decade. Then COVID hit. Donations fell 9 percent when schools and offices (often the site of mobile blood drives) sent students and workers home. But there is hope. In recent months, Vitalant enticed 42 new blood donor groups to donate through its Save Lives/Feed Families program. Launched with funding secured by BSF, this initiative partners Vitalant with local charities that were also negatively impacted by the pandemic. For every blood donation collected at specified blood drives, a monetary donation of $12 is made to a local food bank. “The younger generation is not afraid to be philanthropic and to give to organizations that are important to them,” says Giaquinto. The program is evolving into Give Blood & Give Back by partnering with other charities that benefit veterans, youth development, environmental conservancy and the arts. “We’re hoping this can plug the hole that COVID created, from both a blood collection and fundraising standpoint, and evolve into a successful long-term part of our overall fundraising strategy,” Giaquinto says. Learn more at vitalant.org/feedfamilies.