Blood banks face shortages due to coronavirus fears

Jeremy Fugleberg
Forum News Service

SIOUX FALLS, S.D. — Some blood banks across the Upper Midwest are facing shortages of donated blood crucial to area hospitals and clinics, due to fears of the coronavirus.

Blood donations are down at some facilities, and attendance at donation drives has slipped, say representatives of blood banks in Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota and Wisconsin.

Some hosts of blood drives have or are seeking to cancel the events due to the coronavirus, said Tesia Hummer, spokeswoman for Vitalant, formerly known as United Blood Services, which the only blood provider to nearly 70 hospitals across the region.

"Right now we’re struggling because people are assuming drives are cancelled and they’re not, or they want to cancel drives because of the coronavirus," she said.

One cancellation with a better-than-most justification, she said: the blood drive at the 3M plant in Aberdeen, S.D., which is working around the clock to make face masks that are in high demand due to the coronavirus.

All blood bank representatives said they're begging healthy donors to show up and help their friends and neighbors.

"We're really calling for healthy blood and platelet donors in the community to help strengthen the blood supply," says Erica Buege of Memorial Blood Centers, a national nonprofit with 10 locations that support over 30 hospitals in Minnesota and Wisconsin.

"We've been at a dangerously low status of most blood types for a while now, meaning that we have a less than one-day supply of most blood types and we like to have three day supply of all blood types at a minimum."

Buege estimates that over 1,500 blood drives have been cancelled nationally in recent months, and says that blood drives count for over half the blood collected in Minnesota. "Luckily we haven't been affected with our blood drives here at Memorial yet, but we are sort of anticipating that happening."

Ken Versteeg is the executive director of the Sioux Falls Community Blood Bank, a joint effort of Sioux Falls-based health systems Sanford Health and Avera Health that serves 36 hospitals within a 200-mile radius of the city.

"At this point we have not experienced any blood drive cancellations, but we have seen a decrease in people coming out to give," he said. "At our community events, which are open to residents of the community, there’s a little bit of an apprehension, so to speak, for people coming out and giving during that time. So we have seen a decrease in our community events overall, about 15 percent."

The blood bank is making up for the shortfall by ramping up donations within Sanford and Avera facilities and reaching out to former donors with specific blood types, he said.

Blood banks have put some additional limits on who can donate. The American Red Cross, for example, is calling for potential donors to wait for 28 days after travel to China, Iran, Italy and South Korea, or if they've been with infected or suspected to be infected with the coronavirus, or have had contact with someone who is.

But all blood bank representatives said they're taking pains to reassure donors they follow strict sanitizing procedures, and taking extra precautions amid the coronavirus outbreak.

"We’re urging people to donate blood if they’re feeling healthy and they’re feeling well, just because we know that if there is a coronavirus locally, it could affect the blood supply," said Gretchen Hjelmstad, spokeswoman for the Dakotas region of the American Red Cross, which also serves some western Minnesota counties. "We really encourage people to keep giving to make sure we have enough blood to supply our hospitals.”

Donated blood is seen being transferred into test tubes at United Blood Services in Fargo, North Dakota, in this file photo.