As the American Red Cross plans sweeping changes in the way it collects and tests blood, the Baltimore-Washington chapter stands a good chance of becoming one of a handful of centers with a key role in protecting the blood supply from blood-borne diseases.
Dr. Paul Ness, director of blood services for the Chesapeake and Potomac Region, said yesterday that several factors put the chapter in an excellent position to become one of the regional centers responsible for testing donated blood for agents that spread AIDS, hepatitis and other diseases.
"I think it's highly likely that the Chesapeake region will be one of those chosen centers, in view of the fact that we're already dealing with over 5 percent of the nation's blood supply and a state of the art lab opened in the last year," Dr. Ness said yesterday in a phone interview.
The chapter's laboratory in Northwest Baltimore tests about 310,000 units of blood annually -- making it the third-largest blood collection and testing center in the entire Red Cross network.
If transformed into a regional testing facility, it would test not only those units but thousands of others collected each year by chapters in other Middle Atlantic states. That, Dr. Ness said, would mean not only an expansion of its testing equipment but also the hiring of additional laboratory personnel.
The Chesapeake and Potomac chapter collects and tests blood for most of Maryland, including Baltimore, and the District of Columbia.
Yesterday, Red Cross President Elizabeth H. Dole said a key feature of the reorganization will be the centralization of blood testing in eight to 10 regional centers -- in effect, ending a system in which all 53 regional centers across the country test the blood they collect.
The reorganization is expected to take $120 million and more than two years to implement. It comes in response to findings over the last few years that severe management problems had led to the release of blood contaminated with hepatitis. The Food and Drug Administration also identified instances when the Red Cross failed to follow safety procedures aimed at protecting the blood supply from the AIDS virus.
The FDA criticized the chapters for failing to report accidents and errors to Red Cross headquarters -- and the national office for failing to report problems to the FDA. The Red Cross network has been roundly criticized as a loose confederation of chapters acting autonomously with different computer systems, recordkeeping and testing procedures.
As part of the overhaul, the Red Cross plans to close each of the 53 centers in a rotating fashion next year to give the offices time to retool with a unified computer system and new laboratory equipment. The length of the shutdowns will vary, but officials said some centers will be closed for as much as two months.
To prevent a blood shortage, neighboring regions will build up additional supplies to fill the void created by each shutdown.
Dr. Ness said that additional details of the overhaul -- including when each regional center will be closed -- will be unveiled during the next few months.