Local blood supplier: Donors needed

By: 
Seth Taylor with the Buffalo Bulletin, via the Wyoming News Exchange

BUFFALO — The supply of blood remains critically low in the region and across the U.S., according to Vitalant, the company that supplies blood to most of Wyoming's hospitals. 

"In the last year, it's been pretty rough nationwide across the board,” said Tori Robbins, communications manager for Vitalant. Since the beginning of the summer, Vitalant's supply has dropped 50%, she said.

Despite a slight uptick in donations in the past month — which caused Vitalant to move from calling the deficit an “emergency shortage” to a “critical shortage” — Robbins said the need for blood donations is still high.

"It's good. We're going in the right direction. But we'll need to see blood donation increase in the next couple months and then stay consistent after that to get back to that four days on hand,” she said.

Vitalant's goal is to have a four-day supply of blood, Robbins said, but as of late, the organization has had just a two-day supply, with particular shortages of Type O blood.

Nationwide, blood banks have seen a severe drop in supply since the COVID-19 pandemic began. Normal donations were disrupted as locations that would usually host regular blood drives — such as schools or businesses — shut down.

While many of those organizations have reopened in-person business, they haven't been conducting many blood drives. 

The number of first-time donors and consistent donors that Vitalant sees continues to be down, Robbins said.

“I think it just kind of fell by the wayside for some people, and they got out of that habit,” Robbins said.

But the blood supply had already begun to decline before the pandemic. 

According to the most recent National Blood Collection and Utilization Survey — conducted by the U.S. Health and Human Services Department — blood donations have been declining since 2008. The pool of blood donors has declined as fewer young people donate, according to a congressional report.

As the blood supply has dwindled, the need has not decreased at the same rate, despite medical advances. The majority of donated blood is used for planned medical procedures, Robbins said, rather than accidents. Some people require regular blood transfusions as a part of their medical care. Without donated blood, they can't receive that care.

Complicating blood donation even further is a staffing shortage, Robbins said. 

Since the pandemic, Vitalant has struggled to hire staff, in particular the phlebotomists who draw the blood. That has meant that Vitalant has had to cancel different blood drives when staff aren't available.


“If you know of anybody looking for a job, we're definitely hiring," she said.

At the beginning of the pandemic, the Food and Drug Administration significantly changed its guidance about who can or cannot donate blood, hoping to boost supply. 

The federal agency loosened restrictions on people who have traveled abroad and who have recently gotten a tattoo, among other things. Robbins encouraged people who had previously been told they weren't allowed to donate to check again.

“Truly, so many things have changed,” she said.

The FDA's guidance is non-binding, and the specific rules vary from state to state. Anyone interested in learning more about their eligibility can visit vitalant.org.

Robbins emphasized that consistent donations are key to ensuring a steady supply of blood for those who need it, and blood drives don't always occur regularly in Johnson County. She suggested that people build in blood donations to their trips to bigger cities, such as Gillette or Billings.

“I know nobody really wants to drive three or four hours and then do their chores and their errands and then draw blood,” Robbins said. But she said it's worth it to ensure there's blood available when someone needs it.

"There's no substitute for donated blood," Robbins said. "So, that's somebody's only option."

 

This story was published on Oct. 6, 2022.

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