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Montana faces an emergency blood shortage, 1,000 more donations needed per week

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Blood donation

Danny Kopf donates blood for the third time in his life with the help of Assistant Donor Care Supervisor Sharon McKelvey Tuesday at Vitalant in Billings.

A nationwide blood shortage is being felt locally as Montana’s primary blood supplier is calling for 1,000 more donations per week to ease the effects.

Nationally, 10,000 more donations are needed each week, according to the American Red Cross, which is seeing post-summer donations drop to its lowest levels in six years.

Donations and drives at Montana blood supplier Vitalant have been declining over the last few weeks as COVID-19 precautions force cancellation of blood drives.

Donations normally dip in the summer as vacation season takes off and school is out of session. Fall blood drives on high school and college campuses usually replenish blood banks and provide about 20 to 25% of blood supplies.

Normally, Vitalant strives to have four days worth of blood on hand, but in some places, there is less than a two-day supply, said Vitalant Communications Manager Tori Robbins.

The sudden turn in weather doesn’t help either, Robbins said. Icy roads and closures jeopardize Vitalant’s mobile drives, which make up a significant portion of donations.

Robbins urges donors who have been told they can’t donate to call a donation center, as some changes have been made recently in regards to COVID-19.

A COVID vaccine or flu shot does not prevent donors from giving blood and there is no waiting period to donate after receiving the vaccinations.

Those recovering from COVID can donate 14 days after their last symptom presents, Robbins said.

As the relentless Delta variant pounds the state, more drives are being canceled and more people are working from home in order to social distance.

“COVID is making everything much more challenging. There are more difficulties to host blood drives, more difficulties to host school blood drives and more people working from home when their place of work holds a drive,” said Montana Red Cross Communications Director Matt Ochsner. “With the rise of Delta people are hunkering down.”

Nationwide, Red Cross usually keeps five days worth of type O blood on hand, but now, only a half-day’s supply is available.

“Why we're so alarmed right now is because we usually see a dip in the summer, and then we see donations go back up in the fall, and we’re not seeing that right now,” Ochsner said. “Then the holidays are a busy time for families and that’s when we see another dip in donations, so this dip in the fall is alarming.”

In particular, more donations of type O blood are needed. O negative blood, the universal blood type, is used in emergency situations when doctors don’t have time to determine the patient’s blood type.

The majority of blood units are used for patients with medical conditions that require transfusions on a regular basis, according to Robbins. Planned usage makes up about 90% of blood use.

A single donation can be split into three different transfusable components: red cells, platelets and plasma. When a donation is split, it is possible to save up to three lives through one unit of blood.

Those who receive a transfusion generally need more than one unit, meaning more than one donation is needed to save a life.

Patients rely on volunteer donations given by about 3% of the U.S. population, yet most people are eligible to donate.

“There are so many people, whether cancer patients or surgery or expectant mothers … and countless others who depend of these donations,” Ochsner said. “Blood donation takes less than an hour and a single donation can save up to three lives.”


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