To protect the country's blood supply, the American Red Cross has acted wisely in beginning a transformation from a group of idiosyncratic chapters into a national, standardized and efficiently run body. The Red Cross announced this week that it will close its regional blood centers temporarily on a rotating basis and impose tighter security measures to protect the blood supply from AIDS and other diseases.

The welcome action follows repeated reports over the past several years of serious management problems at the regional blood centers run by the Red Cross, which handles half the nation's blood supply. In a series of inspections, the Food and Drug Administration found that the Red Cross had inadvertently released blood contaminated with hepatitis, failed to follow adequate safety precautions to guard against the use of AIDS-contaminated blood and repeatedly failed to report errors and accidents to the agency.The business of managing blood has grown dramatically more complex over the past decade. Because of the AIDS epidemic and growing incidence of hepatitis, the blood-bank industry has had to perform seven new tests on every unit of donated blood. For Red Cross technicians, that has meant 95 million additional procedures since 1984.

The announcement of the organizational change came only a few days after it was disclosed that three people died from AIDS after getting organ transplants from a man who was shot to death in Virginia in 1985.

No wonder the Red Cross is now taking dramatic action through its president, Elizabeth Dole, who said the new program will "revolutionize blood banking." Even though the change will cost $120 million and take more than two years to complete, it is eminently worth doing. The nation's health is at stake.