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With dire blood shortage, calls for donations grow

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Blood Donation - Bruce Nearhood and Maggie Button

Bruce Nearhood, a longtime donor, was giving platelets on Tuesday at the Rapid City Vitalant Donation Center. Here he’s talking with Maggie Button, a donor care technician at Vitalant who works with platelets. “I get to save people’s every single day," Button said of her job.

A widespread shortage has made the urgency of giving blood greater than it’s been in years.

“We are at a historic two-year low in our blood supply at this point,” Tori Robbins, Vitalant communications manager in this region, said Tuesday.

Vitalant, a nonprofit organization, is the primary blood provider for the hospitals in South Dakota, Robbins said. The organization serves 900 hospitals across the United States.

Meanwhile, the American Red Cross – not connected to Vitalant – has declared the current scarcity to be “the worst blood shortage in over a decade.”

“Dangerously low blood supply levels are posing a concerning risk to patient care and forcing doctors to make difficult decisions about who receives blood transfusions and who will need to wait until more products become available,” the Red Cross’s website says.

Speaking on behalf of Vitalant, Robbins also noted slimmer supplies of blood.

“We strive to have four days on hand of each blood type,” she said. “We are seeing less than two days on hand – especially of the critical O type bloods: O positive and O negative.”

Robbins said O negative is the universal blood type, or the type that everyone can receive. O positive, she said, “is the second most needed blood type” and can be received by 80 percent of the population.

But Robbins stressed there’s a critical shortage of all blood types, as well as a critical shortage of platelets.

“It’s important to have all blood types on hand so we can transfuse the correct blood type whenever it’s needed,” she said.

Bruce Nearhood, a longtime donor, was giving blood on Tuesday at the Rapid City Vitalant Donation Center.

“I’m giving platelets,” he said. “A lot of people have cancer, where my wife used to work, and it’s a way for me to give back without costing me anything but time.”

Nearhood said his wife used to work in the Monument Health Cancer Care Institute.

“So, I know a lot about cancer patients and their needs,” he said.

Steve Struble, also giving blood on Tuesday, described the process as seamless, based on his experiences and observations. He recalled the first time he gave blood, in 1974.

“I was in boot camp. They called my name, lined me up, and took my first pint of blood," he said.

Struble went on to serve for four years in the U.S. Marine Corps, he said, and his practice of blood donation has continued through to the present.

Robbins noted some reasons for the current shortage, in addition to the pandemic.

“Blood donations drop over the holiday season, and we saw them drop over the last couple of weeks,” she said. She also said severe weather, along with the fires in Colorado, have curtailed donations.

Robbins said people who aren't feeling well should not donate blood. But she also said people sometimes conclude they can’t donate blood – for other reasons – when in fact they may be eligible. So, she encourages them to call an information number of 877-25VITAL, or 877-258-4825, with questions.

Robbins said some eligibility requirements have changed during the pandemic. She said, for instance, that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration relaxed some restrictions connected to giving blood after having lived abroad. She noted other restrictions have changed, as well, and she encouraged people to call the information number to find out if they have questions.

She also mentioned confusion surrounding the COVID-19 vaccines.

“The vaccine does not affect your ability to donate blood one way or the other," she said.

Robbins described ripples of fluctuation, with regard to blood donation, throughout the pandemic.

“In the beginning of the pandemic people weren’t coming out to donate blood because they were under recommendations to stay home,” she said.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention then encouraged blood donation, she said, which helped to fuel an increase in donations. But since then there have been dips and surges. And the current period, as she and others describe it, constitutes a deep dip in donations.

Maggie Button, a donor care technician at Vitalant who works with platelets, described her approach to interacting with people – a practice that seems especially vital when the need for blood donation is acute.

“We always just try to make them feel like family,” she said. “We get to know our donors really well.”

Robbins noted that most people are able to donate blood, but only a small percentage do. She also encouraged people who donate once a year to increase their donations to twice – and she said three times a year constituted a good goal. She said people can call to determine the type of donation that’s best.

The Rapid City Vitalant Donation Center at 2209 W. Omaha is open daily for appointments, including on the weekend. People can call 877-258-4825 or go to vitalant.org/ to make appointments and find area blood drives.

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