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Donors sought as dwindling blood supplies hit emergency level

The worker shortage is one factor contributing to critically low blood supply, according to Vitalant.

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Tom Campbell, a former state senator, donating blood in August in Fargo.
Special to The Forum
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FARGO — The long, uncertain years of the coronavirus pandemic have led to dwindling blood donors and staff and recently prompted Vitalant, a national blood service provider, to declare a blood emergency.

“We are very concerned. ... Blood supply is depleted by about 50% since the beginning of the summer,” said Jennifer Bredahl, Vitalant spokeswoman.

As the Labor Day holiday weekend approached, fewer people were donating blood, which is needed by Vitalant to distribute to 72 regional hospitals and 900 hospitals nationwide, Bredahl said in a press release.

“Hospitals need people to donate during these critical weeks,” said Vitalant Chief Medical and Scientific Officer Ralph Vassallo. “Patient blood needs don’t conform to a predictable schedule. Several patients may experience emergencies, while a planned surgery could suddenly require dozens of units of blood for one patient. Hospitals must have blood available to take care of everyone.”

When the pandemic hit the hardest, regular donors became scarce and staff became difficult to recruit, Bredahl said.

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For a time, new blood donors increased because Vitalant was testing for COVID-19 antibodies and gathering convalescent plasma. Now that businesses are returning to normal — with caveats — and workers have returned to more regular schedules, fewer people are coming in to donate.

As a result, Vitalant’s blood supply has fallen to a one-day supply in some cases.

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Rylan Bredahl just turned 16 and donated blood because he wanted to save someone's life. Anyone 17 and older can donate blood without parental permission.
Special to The Forum

“The pandemic twisted our whole business model during this time. Different donors came in to find out if they had the antibodies. Blood was allowed to be given during the pandemic, but we are just now being allowed back in schools, and our donor base has shrunk with the pandemic,” Bredahl said.

“What we are really struggling with is trying to find the staff to draw the blood; even when blood drives want to come out, we don’t have the teams to send them out. This is really putting us in a bind,” she said.

The company has changed pay structures and added staff incentives, but they are limited in what they can do because of their nonprofit status, Bredahl said.

One boon for blood donors is that the Food and Drug Administration recently changed donor eligibility requirements, eliminating regulations limiting people who recently traveled to France, Ireland or the United Kingdom due to mad cow disease risks.

“We are eager to welcome the tens of thousands of donors who have recently become eligible to give blood due to the FDA’s updated guidance,” said Cliff Numark, Vitalant senior vice president. “We also encourage everyone who at one time may have been told they couldn’t give blood to take another look at current eligibility requirements, as this is just one of several updates over the past few years.”

All blood donors are needed, but Type O-negative is the most transfused blood type. Type O-negative blood can be transfused to patients of all blood types, Bredahl said in a press release.

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Vitalant has a fixed site for donating blood on South University and 32nd Avenue in Fargo that is open every day except Wednesdays because of the staff shortage, she said. Area blood drives can be found at Vitalant’s website, www.vitalant.org, by zip code.

Those who donate from Sept. 1-8 will receive an exclusive Vitalant T-shirt redeemable by email.

C.S. Hagen is an award-winning journalist currently covering the education and activist beats mainly in North Dakota and Minnesota.
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