WASHINGTON (AP) _ Thousands of people who pledged to donate blood after Sept. 11 aren't doing so, as the nation's supply dwindles to pre-attack levels and in some places nears shortages.
Blood supplies always drop in the winter, as snowstorms, flu and holidays hinder regular donors from giving. Blood banks hoped this winter would be different after hundreds of thousands lined up to donate after the attacks. Instead, supplies are tightening again. Stocks of O-negative, the only blood type everyone can use, are especially worrisome.
``We're back to begging for volunteer blood donors,'' Joyce Halvorsen of the Community Blood Bank in Lincoln, Neb., says with a sigh.
``We're seeing a trickle'' of Sept. 11 donors return, adds Jim McPherson of America's Blood Centers, whose member blood banks supply about half the nation's blood. ``It's a little disheartening.''
Some potential donors tell blood banks they don't see the need to give again unless there's an emergency. That's a dangerous misconception. Emergencies happen every day. A single car crash can require 50 units of blood. A California blood bank just reported using its entire inventory to deal with 21 car crashes in a single day due to bad fog.
Some blood banks also report calls from donors angry that the Red Cross threw away 49,000 pints collected after the Sept. 11 attacks and wondering why they should donate again.
The Red Cross had so much extra because it encouraged continued donations in the days after the attacks even though banks were full. In contrast, America's Blood members urged donors to come back in a few weeks when blood would be needed again, yet find today that some donors don't distinguish between the two groups.
``We are not the American Red Cross and ... we did not discard any units,'' is a message Elizabeth Neff of the Central Florida Blood Bank finds herself frequently giving to complaints that ``I read in the paper you're throwing blood away.''
The Red Cross' Dr. Jerry Squires says such complaints are rare and that people must understand 49,000 excess units is a small fraction of the millions collected each year.
Red blood cells last only 42 days, so regular, repeated donations are necessary.
No one has tracked exactly how many Sept. 11 donors have returned. But experts say it's easy to see that only a fraction have: Government monitoring concludes supplies that jumped 33 percent are now largely back to pre-attack levels _ and those levels were so tight that many areas routinely experienced shortages.
Today, about a third of America's Blood members are appealing for donations because they have a day's supply or less of certain blood types. The American Red Cross, which supplies the other half of the nation's blood, contends it's doing better this winter than last but acknowledges it has only a one- or two-day supply of crucial Type O-negative blood, too little for comfort.
One blood bank that is counting Sept. 11 returnees: The Central Florida Blood Bank in Orlando had 6,000 first-time donors that week and tracked 891 returns by Christmas. To help lure more back, it's trying giveaways such as patriotic T-shirts and free long-distance phone cards.
Many Americans don't understand that blood must be regularly replenished so enough is on hand when emergency strikes. Donating after disaster won't help the first victims because required safety testing takes a few days.
There are ways to help this winter, says America's Blood Centers, which this week begins ads designed to spur donation:
_People can donate once every 56 days.
_Even if you've never donated before, starting is especially important during the winter, when colds, flu or bad weather sideline many longtime donors.
_When bad winter weather strikes, donate blood as soon as it is safe to drive to your local blood bank. Snow and ice storms are times when blood is used rapidly.
_If weather or illness prevents you from donating, call your blood bank to reschedule an appointment.