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The American Red Cross recently issued a plea to local blood donors because its blood supply had reached critically low levels after the holidays.

While the Red Cross supplies hospitals across Western Pennsylvania, it may come as a surprise to some that it’s another organization that keeps blood supplies stocked at hospitals in Washington and Greene counties.

“Because the Red Cross is such a huge national presence and holds blood drives in our area, many people don’t realize that it’s Vitalant, not the American Red Cross, that supplies all the blood to hospitals in the UPMC and AHN networks, as well as local hospitals in Little Washington and eastern West Virginia,” said Kristen Lane, marketing lead with Vitalant.

Vitalant provides blood and blood products, platelets and plasma, to Washington Hospital, Canonsburg Hospital and Washington Health System Greene.

“Blood donation is a generous, life-saving act that requires courage,” Lane said. “So whether you donate blood through Vitalant or the America Red Cross, you are saving lives and serving the greater good. However, Vitalant and the American Red Cross work separately to contract with specific hospitals to provide the blood they need to treat their patients.”

If the name Vitalant doesn’t sound familiar, that’s because it comes from a name change. Central Blood Bank and 10 other blood centers across the country were acquired by Blood Systems Inc. in 2017.

In September 2018, these blood centers united as one cohesive brand under the new name Vitalant, which now comprises more than 120 donation centers combined with about 30,000 mobile blood drives a year nationwide.

“Vitalant offers blood donors the opportunity to save lives through ten donation centers throughout the region, regular visits by our blood mobiles, and community blood drives set up in a variety of businesses, schools, and places of worship,” Lane said.

Vitalant and American Red Cross have watched blood donation levels plummet over the past decade. During that time, the number of people donating blood has shrunk by more than half.

“In 2017 alone, the hospitals we support required nearly 160,000 pints of blood to treat patients, but blood donors provided about 74,000 pints of blood, which is less than half the amount needed,” Lane said.

“This has required Vitalant to import the blood from other communities at the cost of millions of dollars.”

That significant drop has the medical community asking the public for help.

“It is unprecedented, and it must be addressed,” said Dr. Darrell Triulzi, medical director of Vitalant Clinical Services and director of UPMC’s Division of Transfusion Medicine. “Our message is clear. We are calling on people across our region to make donating blood a lifelong habit. Giving blood on a regular basis will help ensure hospitals have enough blood to treat patients with cancer and other diseases, to perform elective and emergency surgeries and to help save the lives of our neighbors.”

Triulzi said they never want to get to the point where a shortage of blood forces hospitals to postpone treatments and surgeries, but admits 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. So it is critical to have blood available before an emergency.”

Vitalant and the American Red Cross are looking at the reasons behind the drop in blood donations.

“One is our aging population,” Lane said. “Baby Boomers comprise the largest group of blood donors, but many are transitioning from blood donors to blood users or they have medical conditions that prevent them from donating.”

Another factor is many businesses and organizations that used to hold regular blood drives are downsizing or employees are working from home. Other issues affecting donation numbers are stringent screening rules that often result in temporary donor deferrals. Examples of this include people who have recently gotten tattoos or vacationed in areas where malaria is present.

But Lane said there’s another larger issue at hand.

“Maybe the biggest challenge is finding the right message that will inspire millennials and Gen Xers to become regular blood donors.”

She said it’s important to think about who your blood donation will actually help.

“Friends, family, coworkers, people at your place of worship all may have been touched by the need for blood,” Lane said. “Each whole blood donor can save three people’s lives because each component of their blood (red blood cells, plasma, and platelets) goes to a separate patient. The feeling of accomplishment and pride blood donors get by paying it forward is immeasurable.”

In Washington County, Vitalant welcomes blood donors at two locations: The Vitalant Bloodmobile is at the Wilfred R. Cameron Wellness Center, 240 Wellness Way, Washington, from 1 to 6:30 p.m. every second and fourth Wednesday. There is also a Vitalant recurring blood drive from 7:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. every first and third Saturday at Washington Hospital Community Room, 155 Wilson Ave., Washington.

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