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Flu bug drains blood drives in Western Pa., nearby states

| Wednesday, Jan. 30, 2013, 10:59 a.m.
Red Cross collection specialist Diane Huzsek of Central City jokes with Dennis McKnight, 59, of Grindstone as he donates blood on Tuesday, Jan. 29, 2013, in Third Presbyterian Church in Uniontown. A strong flu season and some bad weather have impacted blood collection efforts. Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review
Specialists attend to blood donors during a Red Cross blood drive on Tuesday, Jan. 29, 2013, in Third Presbyterian Church in Uniontown. Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review

The influenza season pummeling hospitals and nursing homes has socked blood drives, too.

American Red Cross blood drives fell 9 percent short of their collective goal from Jan. 1-20 in the Greater Alleghenies region. The shortfall worsened to 17 percent last week as organizers across the country wrestled with bad weather and flu-related dips in turnout.

“The winter months are generally a tough time to meet the needs of patients anyway,” said national Red Cross spokeswoman Stephanie Millian, pointing to wintry conditions and flu symptoms that can keep donors away. “It's never more important that those who are eligible and feeling healthy come donate to give the lifesaving gift of blood.”

Public health data suggest the 2012-13 flu outbreak, which got an early start in December, is among the worst in a decade in Pennsylvania and nationwide. The latest state numbers issued on Tuesday show 102 flu-related deaths in the state since early October, the highest reported count in at least seven years. Laboratory tests confirmed more than 27,000 flu cases statewide for the season, representing a small fraction of the untold total.

But the outbreak appears to be easing in Pennsylvania. New confirmed cases totaled 3,683 last week, down from an updated tally of 6,068 during the week of Jan. 14, the Department of Health said.

State health officials “strongly believe that flu season has peaked and we are experiencing a downward trend,” department spokeswoman Holli Senior said. Flu cases still outpace all but one of the past flu seasons in state records, she said.

“We're beyond the first peak,” said Dr. William Pasculle, director of microbiology at UPMC Presbyterian in Oakland. He said UPMC processed 570 samples last week in possible flu cases, down 100 from the week before.

At the same time, UPMC recorded a small uptick in cases stemming from a strain of influenza B, Pasculle said.

“We worry that, all of a sudden, influenza B could start to increase,” he said, urging that “there's still plenty of time” to get a flu shot. Pasculle said the 2012-13 vaccination covers the influenza B strain and two others.

Getting the inoculation won't diminish a blood donor's eligibility with the Red Cross, although people with the flu must recover completely before they can give, Millian said. She said it doesn't appear the flu can be transmitted through giving or receiving blood in transfusions.

The Red Cross is seeking donations especially from donors with O-negative and B-negative blood types. Blood drives in its 100-county Greater Alleghenies region rebounded on Monday to 96.5 percent of their collection goal, regional spokeswoman Marianne Spampinato said.

“While the Red Cross isn't in a critical-shortage situation by any means at this point, we don't want to get into that situation,” Millian said.

Adam Smeltz is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-380-5676 or asmeltz@tribweb.com.

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