CHICAGO — A nationwide call for blood donors went out this week as supplies were dangerously low, a recurring problem around the Fourth of July that a year ago prompted one Chicago area hospital to postpone surgeries.
While things aren't that dire in the Chicago area this year, there is still a shortage at local blood banks, officials said.
Blood donors nationally are in high demand this time of year as the public turns its attention to holiday travel and summer vacation, according to the American Red Cross. Knowing that turnout will be low, the number of blood drives nationally typically drop during the July Fourth week than an average week, according to the Red Cross.
Kathleen Meyer, spokeswoman for LifeSource, a nonprofit blood center that services Chicago area hospitals, said the center has seen another seasonal dip in donations.
"This summer is similar to last summer," Meyer said. "We never know for sure why there's such a decrease. But we see the same trends in summer and around holidays."
Experts say donations drop in summer with schools and colleges out of session. Both sites serve as major blood drive sources -- accounting for as much as 20 percent of total annual donations, according to the Red Cross. Holiday travel and the summer increase in accidents, which means more blood is needed by hospitals, could also have an effect on donations.
LifeSource is part of a national system of blood banks whose inventory as a whole is down by 44 percent this summer for all blood types, according to Meyer.
Usually LifeSource has a three-day supply on hand to give to Chicago hospitals. Currently there's only 1.4 days worth of O Positive blood and 1.5 days of O Negative, said Meyer.
The American Red Cross issued a national call this week for eligible donors to give blood -- especially those with Type O, which is valuable because it can be used by anyone.
"A lot of people don't realize that along with emergencies and accidents that happen, there are people who need blood all the time," said Meyer. "When a shortage happens like this it becomes very difficult to manage our supply and make sure we're giving enough to different hospitals."
At Rush University Medical Center, where some surgeries had to be postponed last year following the holiday week because blood was so low, this year's supply is more stable. Northwestern Memorial Hospital also said it is not experiencing a blood shortage.
Mark Pool, medical director for Rush's blood center, said no surgeries had to be postponed this year.
"I think our staff is very mindful that the blood supply is always at a critical level," said Pool. "I work with medical staff throughout the hospital to try to manage the blood in the best way possible so that we are able to care for our patients and also manage our supply."
Blood has a short shelf-life: Red blood cells are viable for 35 to 42 days, depending on how they're collected, and platelets just five days, Pool said.
"There's always a need for blood -- especially during the summer -- but there's always a need," Pool said.
Last month, the Red Cross began a new "Missing Types" campaign to encourage new and inactive donors. Letters used to identify blood types like A, B and O were removed from logos and websites to draw attention to a blood donor's potential to save a life.
Even though thousands of new donors were counted in June, according to the Red Cross, they didn't make up for the summer dip.
"What we've seen lately is not only a decrease in donors but new donors," said Red Cross spokeswoman Holly Baker. "We're really trying to encourage younger folks to donate blood."
The Red Cross is also encouraging those who have donated to do so again.
"You can donate every 56 days. We're encouraging people to become a donor for life," Baker said.
To give blood at a Red Cross blood drive, donors must be 16 years old with parental consent or 17 and older and in good health. For a list of donation opportunities, visit redcrossblood.org or call 800-RED-CROSS.
At LifeSource, donors must be 18 years old, or 16 or 17 with signed parental consent. They must bring photo identification to donate. Donation locations can be viewed at lifesource.org.