Commissioner O’Dowd Wants NJ Companies to Give Blood

Beth Fitzgerald | June 1, 2012 | Health Care
State campaign addresses chronic shortages with workplace blood drives

State Health Commissioner Mary E. O'Dowd
New Jerseyans needed more than 42,500 pints of imported blood last year, out of the more than 300,000 pints consumed statewide for medical procedures. New Jersey is both the nation’s leading importer of blood and a laggard when it comes to donations: 3.6 percent of eligible Jerseyans give blood, compared to 5 percent nationally.

With New Jersey’s chronic blood shortage expected to worsen during the summer, as vacations deplete the ranks of donors, state Health Commissioner Mary E. O’Dowd on Thursday launched a campaign aimed at getting more employers to sponsor workplace blood drives between now and Labor Day.

O’Dowd co-chairs the New Jersey Workplace Blood Donor Coalition, founded in 2008, whose members include employer associations like the state Chamber of Commerce and the Chamber of Commerce of Southern New Jersey. The coalition’s summer project is to move the needle on New Jersey’s lackluster blood donations. Letters have gone out to 400 medium and large businesses and trade and professional associations, urging them to encourage their workers to take part in a community blood drive, or have one of the state’s blood banks drive a mobile blood collection unit to their workplace.

“This is an easy and inexpensive way to maintain a commitment to corporate citizenship,” said coalition co-chair Kevin Rigby, public affairs vice president of Novartis Pharmaceuticals, which runs blood drives year round and plans three this summer Encouraging more employers, both large and small, to follow that example is the coalition’s goal. “This is an excellent opportunity to boost employee morale by creating a meaningful volunteer activity that saves lives,” Rigby said.

O’Dowd said hospitals typically have less than two days’ supply of blood on hand. “On some days blood supplies in New Jersey reach alarming lows, and when that happens, emergencies are given priority and elective surgery has to be curtailed or delayed.” She said during extreme shortages, a hospital is forced to put its emergency room on “divert”– meaning that ambulances will bypass that hospital, and drive emergency patients to another hospital instead

Given their clear and present need for blood, hospitals regularly conduct blood drives among their own employees and seek to draw in members of the community. Robert A. Neri, assistant vice president, laboratory operations for the Voorhees-based Virtua health system, wants local employers who can’t run their own blood drives to send their employees to Virtua. He said Virtua collected 1,000 units of blood last year—and used 14,000 units.

Melanie Willoughby, senior vice president for government affairs at the New Jersey Business & Industry Association, said that since it was founded in 2008, the coalition has been building an organization with the capacity to spearhead blood drives by employers statewide.

“We realized that in order to reach more small businesses, it had to be a turnkey operation. We tell them where the blood drives are. You can’t just say ‘send your employees to a blood drive’ you have to give them a list of the drives. This year we feel we have a lot of the tools put together, and could do a big campaign.” She said small employers are encouraged to get the word out to their employees about local blood drives while “large employers conduct their own blood drives, because they have enough people to make it worthwhile for the mobile units to come in.”

O’Dowd said nine out of 10 people will need blood at some point in their lives. To be eligible, a donor must be in good health, 16 or older, and weigh at least 110 pounds. Donors can give blood every 56 days.

The average human has six quarts of blood, and donors give a unit of blood, which is slightly more than a pint, according to Tony De Luccio, spokesman for the Community Blood Council of New Jersey in Ewing, which has two mobile blood collection vehicles. “Workplaces are a huge part, a tremendous part of our blood collection.”

Donors can come to the council, which opens at 7 a.m. to draw blood, and also has some evening hours. But De Luccio noted that in the current economy, employees may be too busy to come to Ewing to donate blood. “We understand that. We go out to businesses and we work around their needs.” De Luccio said schools routinely run blood drives — but schools are closed during the summer, eliminating that source of supply. “There is a routine shortage of blood in New Jersey, but over the summer months it’s even worse. And unfortunately, a lot of people who are qualified to donate blood, don’t donate.”

According to O’Dowd, if New Jersey could increase its blood donation rate to the national average of 5 percent, it would no longer need to import blood.

John Sarno is president of the Employers Association of New Jersey, whose 1,250 members average 90 to 125 employees. To get small employers involved in blood drives, the state needs to do a better job of outreach, and make it very easy for employers to participate, Sarno said. And he said participation will vary depending on how civic-minded and “how socially conscious that employer is, whether there is an owner on site that feels obliged to give back. I’m not saying it can’t be done, but it’s a hit-or-miss proposition.” He said there are employers who will see this as an extension of the volunteer opportunities they offer employees to foster teamwork, like spending a Saturday with Habitat for Humanity.

Sarno also suggested that employers could encourage blood donations by giving workers two hours of paid time off during the day to go and donate blood.

David Knowlton, president of the New Jersey Health Care Quality Institute, said New Jersey’s 3.6 percent donation rate is relatively low, but it used to be 2.5 percent and has gradually risen He said the workplace coalition has helped raise the donation rate. “When you ask people why they don’t donate, they say they never thought about it. And there’s a whole group of people who don’t like needles. But the big thing is that people don’t think of it: it’s not on the list of things they are going to think about today. When you raise it to top of mind, and people can act on it right away and it’s convenient, then people will donate.”