The American Red Cross says its national blood supply is at its lowest level in 15 years because of severe weather combined with a markedly slow summer of donations.
Summer is typically a time when donations are sluggish because people are away on vacations and schools that host blood drives are closed. Officials say this summer is worse than normal.
Severe storms in early July forced the cancellation of dozens of blood drives. Extreme heat has kept donors indoors and at home. And because July 4th fell in the middle of the week, more employees took extended vacations, and fewer businesses hosted blood drives.
"We just aren't seeing the donors coming through the door right now," says Karen Stecher, communication officer for the Red Cross.
If things don't turn around, doctors may have to cancel elective surgeries if needed blood products aren't readily available.
"In a worst-case scenario, more serious procedures - things like liver transplants that require a lot of blood - will not start until there is enough blood on the shelves," says Richard Benjamin, chief medical officer for the Red Cross. "We need to do everything we can to make sure it doesn't get to that point."
The Red Cross reached emergency levels June 25, with 50,000 fewer donations than expected in June. There are half as many readily available blood products today than at the same time last year.
America's Blood Centers, which collects 50% of the nation's blood, says donations have been tight but not at the same emergency levels as the Red Cross.
"This summer is fairly typical - it's a constant struggle. We are scrambling to get donors," Chief Executive Officer Jim MacPherson says. "August is the killer month. So we will see."
Megan Hildebrand, 27, of Chicago started donating when she was 17 because of her mom who needed two blood transfusions while she was pregnant with Megan.
"I felt it was my duty," Hildebrand says. "Someone helped save my mom's life - I wanted to do it in return."
Hildebrand tries to donate every 56 days, the most frequently a person is permitted to give blood.
"I am pretty religious about it, but definitely during the summer, I am less stringent," Hildebrand says. "In the summer, there are happy hours and trips and always stuff going on just taking advantage of the summer weather. It's harder to find space in your social schedule."
Lynn McCartney, 49, of Tallahassee says she is most likely to donate around the holidays and in the summertime because that's when she hears about the shortages.
"I do it to save lives," says McCartney, who has donated more than 5 gallons of blood. "One of these days I might need blood. Somebody in my family might need blood, and I want it to be there."
The Blood Alliance, which is part of America's Blood Centers, provides blood to more than 40 hospitals and medical facilities in Florida, Georgia and South Carolina and bolsters summer blood drives with promotions.
The agency sends out bloodmobiles to sports stadiums and other venues to reach large, captive audiences and make it convenient for them to donate blood, spokesperson Odette Struys says.
"We have found this to be particularly helpful in blood donor recruitment, while incentives to provide our donors with free tickets to the games, or small thank you gifts of appreciation, also tends to help," says Chief Operating Officer Valerie Collins.
The Blood Alliance also uses a free smartphone app called iDon8. It gives eligible donors a record of their previous donations, alerts them of their next available date to donate, provides locations of blood drives and sends out area notifications when the community blood supply becomes low or critical.
"The need doesn't change in the summertime. The need is every single day," says Rob Purvis, vice president of the New York Blood Center, which serves about 200 hospitals in New York, Connecticut, New Jersey and Philadelphia.
Around the country:
•Officials at the Nashville Red Cross headquarters hope for 50 to 60 blood donation appointments a day, but Tuesday, only 31 people had signed up to donate. The Tennessee Valley Blood Services Region, which includes 70 counties in Tennessee, Kentucky, Illinois and Missouri, has seen fewer than the 600 donors it needs each day to maintain its supply.
•The Northern California Community Blood Bank, which serves two counties, has three vehicles that go out to conduct mobile blood drives. "We like to have 50 to 60 donations a day, but we had a stretch where we were really low, getting down in the 20s and 30s. You can't survive on that for long," technical director Chris Stenlund says.
•In southern New Jersey, where blood donations were 2,000 pints below expectations in June and early July, Red Cross officials met with 21 business leaders looking for help gathering donors. Four firms have scheduled blood drives.
"We've asked all the companies to focus their energy on running blood drives in the month of August, which is our worst month of the year," says Rosanne Marks, manager of corporate accounts in the Penn-Jersey region. "If 21 businesses held blood drives, we would collect hundreds of pints of blood for area hospitals."
Contributing: Samantha Raphelson, the (Cherry Hill, N.J.) Courier-Post; Brian Haas, The (Nashville) Tennessean