The effects of a particularly bad flu season ripple across Northeast Ohio

Collin Wong, Web Editor

As the number of flu cases in Cuyahoga County continues to increase, healthcare resources across Northeast Ohio are becoming strained. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported that the flu in Ohio is “widespread.” In Cuyahoga County, there were 135 flu hospitalizations during the week of December 22-28. Merle Gordon, director of the Cleveland Department of Public Health, told Cleveland 19 that the number of confirmed flu-related hospitalizations in the city was well above the five-year average. 

In Cuyahoga County, there were a little over 600 emergency room visits in the last week of 2019 alone. (In emergency room visits patients are classified as outpatients, while hospitalized patients are considered inpatients.) That is well above the five-year median, a mere 300 emergency room visits. In the last two weeks of 2019, there were about 1100 emergency room visits for the flu in the county. 

Doctors are becoming overwhelmed, too. Cleveland 19 reports that doctors at University Hospitals Cleveland Medical Center have been seeing a “major increase in urgent cares [and] doctors office visits” for flu-related symptoms. “We’re definitely off the charts,” he said. “In the pediatric emergency department, there are some days where we saw 30 patients above what we’ve seen historically on this time of year on that day of the week.” Wait times have also increased. Online wait times at CVS MinuteClinic locations late Friday afternoon topped two hours in many locations. MetroHealth clinics’ wait times were around an hour.

However, the flu is impacting more than just health clinics and doctors’ offices. The recent spike in flu illnesses in Cuyahoga County has also caused a blood donation shortage for two major blood banks in Northeast Ohio: the American Red Cross and Vitalant.

Sarah Wering, a communications specialist for Vitalant, told Cleveland 19 that the outbreak in Northeast Ohio is affecting people’s ability to donate. 

The challenge is that blood donors have to be asymptomatic of the flu for at least a week before they donate. However, as more and more Ohioans contract the flu, they will not be eligible to give blood. This effect limits the pool of eligible donors. 

The result? Vitalant was short of 21,000 donations during the holiday season. Dr. Ralph Vassallo, the chief medical officer for Vitalant, told Cleveland 19 that centers across northeast Ohio try to “maintain a four-day supply of blood just to provide what patients need.” However, Vitalant did not have a four-day supply for “for certain blood types,” most specifically, O types. The American Red Cross is facing a similar shortage. The company stated in a press release that they had less than a three day supply of type O blood as of January 6th.

The Red Cross was so desperate for donations that they raffled out tickets to the Super Bowl to donors who came in to donate until Jan. 13. 

Nevertheless, the need for blood donors remains. Vassallo told Cleveland 19, “Blood on the shelf helps patients every day for traumas, cancer treatments and critical transfusions, and enables us to be ready if disaster strikes.” To put the importance of blood donation into context, an average car accident victim requires 100 pints of donated blood, coming from about 100 blood donors. 

Moreover, Vitalant and the American Red Cross supply donor blood for many major hospitals around northeast Ohio. According to Cleveland 19, Vitalant supplies most major hospitals in the region. Fox 8 reports that the American Red Cross supplies up to fifty hospitals in northern Ohio. 

The shortage may have rippling effects across the region’s hospitals. For one thing, hospitals will be administering donated blood faster than they can restock. Surgeons may delay elective surgeries and more serious procedures depending on the severity of the shortage. As a result, patients may not be getting the treatment they need in a timely manner because the hospital needs to save the limited blood supply for more urgent cases, like car accident victims. 

Blood supply shortages around the nation are also known to be a nightmare for blood bank directors, too, who then have to figure out how to manage the shortage. Dr. Atif Shafqat, a hematologist-oncologist at the Missouri Baptist Medical Center in St. Louis, said “When I ask our blood bank director the toughest part of her job, she always tells me it is these shortages and how to deal with them.”