By Keenan Miller
For the Juneau Empire
The nation is in the midst of the “worst blood shortage in over a decade,” the American Red Cross recently announced, and Alaska is no exception.
The shortage is threatening hospitals’ ability to provide care for patients around the country. The Blood Bank of Alaska is facing similar supply issues due to national factors like the COVID-19 pandemic and holiday season and more localized ones, such as weather closures and short-staffing.
“As far as the Blood Bank of Alaska is concerned, we are challenged, like every other blood bank in the country,” said Robert Scanlon, the Blood Bank of Alaska’s CEO. “Hospitals currently are being supplied, but maybe not at the levels they would previously enjoy prior to the current downturn in blood collections.”
Scanlon attributed this in part to the holiday season, a time of year the BBAK traditionally receives fewer donations. But he also cited the pandemic flare-up caused by the emergence and spread of the Omicron variant, first detected in the state on Dec. 13, 2021, and weather challenges.
In Fairbanks, the blood center had to close for a few days due to a citywide stay-at-home order issued in response to an ice storm. Matanuska-Susitna Valley’s location recently faced a closure in response to a severe windstorm that “knocked out” their heating system. Juneau’s blood donation center was closed last Monday due to snow volume and concerns about the structural integrity of the Jordan Creek Center. The Juneau closure, according to staff there, meant that between eight and 10 blood donation appointments had to be canceled or deferred.
Demand for donated blood, which was relatively low for much of the pandemic, is increasing due to an uptick in trauma treatments — which often use large amounts of blood — and the resurgence of elective surgeries. Statistics collected from the BBAK and cited by Scanlon have found a 5-10% increase over traditional average usage in recent months.
“The BBAK is the only donation service for Alaska,” Seth Middleton, a donor service technician at the Juneau blood donation center, explained. “It’s between five facilities that we’re collecting blood for the entire state of Alaska, so it’s really important for us to have a full schedule, or close to a full schedule, to keep the entire state safe and out of a critical need zone.”
Hospitals must not only have an inventory of blood for routine needs and direct use, which must be rotated as blood is used or expired, but a buffer for emergency needs. Many routine “bloodless surgeries” can only proceed if doctors have adequate blood stores, to ensure that any potential complications can be adequately addressed.
“So if that blood’s not on the shelf, the surgery doesn’t happen,” Scanlon said.
Fewer drives and mobile collections
Other challenges are also stymieing the BBAK’s game of catch-up. Mobile clinics, for example, are being scheduled less often.
“It’s been very difficult to get businesses to schedule those, because they’re still taking action to safeguard their staff,” Scanlon said. “So we have been purposely guiding donors to our fixed sites.” Though fixed sites are generally safer and more efficient places to collect, the BBAK plans to restore their mobile operations as travel and pandemic logistics allow.
Carol May, a teacher at Thunder Mountain High School, traditionally collaborates with the BBAK to coordinate spring and fall blood drives.
“We have not been contacted about this since before COVID,” she wrote in an email to the Juneau Empire. “I am assuming they just aren’t doing it.”
In a list of reasons explaining the first-of-its-kind national blood shortage crisis, announced on Jan. 11, the American Red Cross said a decrease in the number of mobile blood drives hosted by colleges and high schools was a significant contributor to shortages.
Jamie Singh, the supervisor at the Juneau blood donation center, said that short staffing has also been a challenge since before July 2021.
“It’s been a little bit of a challenge, with COVID and everything, trying to keep staff on, but hopefully next week we’ll be fully staffed,” Singh said. “Normally, it’s a three-person crew, so we’ll have two donor service technicians, and then there’s me.”
Currently, Singh works alongside only Middleton, who moved to Juneau from Anchorage to ensure the Juneau donation site could continue to accept blood donations. COVID has also led to more appointment cancellations and more anxious donors.
“With the new variants … I’ve been getting a lot more phone calls, from people who have COVID, and are not able to come,” said Middleton. “It’s odd how we’re having more people cancel appointments, but more people are making appointments. We are getting more donors as a whole.”
The blood donation process itself can also be intimidating.
“People are timid to come in anyways on the first go,” Singh said. “It’s kind of a big ask, and there’s a lot of people who are nervous around needles. And then with COVID, we do have a good amount of seniors who come in, and you can tell they’re a little more resistant and just nervous.”
Still, Singh and Middleton both felt confident about the BBAK’s strict COVID mitigation measures, which include ensuring that donors are feeling healthy and well, careful masking and the wearing of personal protective equipment. The Juneau blood donation center also only schedules one appointment every half-hour, which helps facilitate physical distancing as much as possible.
“It feels safe here,” Singh said.
Mark Miller, a longtime blood donor, recently donated at the Juneau clinic.
“It just feels good, because I know there’s a huge demand for blood,” he said. He described the blood donation center as having a “very homey atmosphere,” and emphasized that the donation process felt comfortable, efficient and safe.
Deferral guidelines factor in
Changes made to Food and Drug Administration’s deferral guidelines in recent years may make the blood donation process more approachable for those who have been previously deferred, including those who have received a tattoo or piercing more than three months ago or who have traveled to certain countries.
Singh and Middleton both expressed frustration with the FDA’s blood deferral policy for men who have sex with men. Though the post-sexual contact deferral period was reduced to three months in April of 2020, a group of mostly Democratic U.S. senators, including Sens. Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders, Tammy Baldwin and Cory Booker expressed disappointment with the “outdated and discriminatory” policy in a letter released on Jan. 13. This week, France and Greece both announced the end of their MSM deferral policies, allowing gay and bisexual men to donate without restriction.
“I’ve gotten phone calls about it, ‘Hey, I’m gay, but I’d like to donate blood,’” Middleton said. “And for us to turn people away for that is really hard. They’re frustrated, I can tell they’re frustrated, and I’m frustrated too, because I want people to come in.”
Singh affirmed: “It’s a weird thing to have to turn somebody away for something like that.”
To maintain their certification from the FDA, the Blood Bank of Alaska must follow national standards of procedure.
The Blood Bank of Alaska does not engage in independent advocacy efforts to modify FDA policies, but Scanlon said the Blood Bank of Alaska is a member of America’s Blood Centers, a national advocacy group based in Washington, DC. In a statement addressing the FDA’s men who have sex with men policy, America’s Blood Centers writes that they “encourage the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to continue its examination of deferral criteria for men who have had sex with men (MSM) to ensure the use of rational, science-based deferral periods that are applied fairly and consistently among blood donors.”
For those interested in donating, Singh and Middleton, both regular blood donors themselves, reminded people to eat hearty, iron-rich meals and drink plenty of water before their appointment at the blood donation center. They also asked that people avoid coffee before their appointments, because caffeine restricts blood flow and dehydrates individuals. These simple steps help ensure that donations will be successful.
“We’re gonna get out of this, but we’re gonna need the help of Alaskans across the state who will step forward and donate blood and platelets,” Scanlon said. “Traditionally Alaskans have been very, very concerned about not only their local community, but the Alaskan community as a whole, and we have very, very generous donors who always step forward to make sure that the blood supply in the state of Alaska is up to speed, so that their fellow Alaskans can be well served.”
How you can help
1. Blood Bank of Alaska is currently in need of all blood types. This is to replenish the supply being used by local hospitals. The blood types O positive and O negative are in critical need. These blood types are used for trauma patients and are in high demand.
2. To schedule an appointment donors can visit bloodbankofalaska.org or call 907-222-5630.
3. One donation can save as many as three lives. The average blood donation takes approximately one hour of a volunteer donor’s time.