The American Red Cross is fighting to preserve its image as the dependable collector of half the nation's blood supply by overhauling a collection system that evolved decades before anyone ever heard of AIDS.

And even though health professionals are praising the organization's new plan, they say there's no guarantee it will increase the level of blood safety.Leaders in the blood bank field said Monday's dramatic announcement is likely to bolster the credibility of the 110-year-old disaster relief and blood-supply organization.

"The Red Cross still elicits images of Clara Barton and troops in World War II," said Dr. Joel Solomon, chief executive officer of the American Association of Blood Banks. "I think people will realize that an organization that is trying to do good is now trying to do better."

But Jim McPherson, executive director of the Council of Community Blood Centers, cautioned, "It remains to be seen if this really fixes their problem.

"They have always had a struggle in trying to merge what is essentially a corporate pharmaceutical entity inside this organization, which was designed primarily to provide direct services to people in disasters," McPherson said.

If the plan announced Monday does not work, he said, "Then they will have to look at tearing the corporate model apart."

The Red Cross announced in San Diego that it will close its 53 blood centers in rotation next year to install a new computer system and make other changes to protect the U.S. blood supply from the AIDS virus and other threats.

"Instead of continuing to patch and bandage a system that evolved in the 1940s, we will move to the next generation," Red Cross President Elizabeth Dole said. "The world has changed and we must change with it."

She repeated the agency's assertions that it has supplied no AIDS-contaminated blood to patients.

"All our blood facilities will meet exacting standards of quality, or they will not collect blood," Dole said in announcing the program approved by the Red Cross board of directors on Sunday. "We will, with this program, revolutionize blood banking."

Dr. Marcus Simpson, head of the blood bank at George Washington University Medical Center, said "The blood supply is safe and it's getting safer."

Nevertheless, he said, "It's hard to be certain about AIDS because it takes so long for the disease to manifest itself. Nobody knows now and they won't for four to five years."