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A drop in blood donations means shortages for Montana hospitals

Tessa Burns donates blood at an American Red Cross event in Columbia Falls, MT, January 11, 2022.
Aaron Bolton
Montana Public Radio
Tessa Burns donates blood at an American Red Cross event in Columbia Falls, MT, January 11, 2022.

The COVID-19 pandemic has led to shortages of everything from toilet paper to cars. Now the American Red Cross and Montana hospitals say they are experiencing a major shortage of blood donations.

Thirty-one-year-old Tessa Burns is getting ready to donate blood at an American Red Cross drive in Columbia Falls.

“I have the O-positive. So, it’s really good blood to give to people ...”

Burns says donating blood makes her feel good about helping those in need. But there have been fewer donors like Burns showing up at blood drives since the pandemic started, says American Red Cross of Montana and Idaho spokesperson Matt Ochsner.

“We’re seeing our worst blood shortage in over a decade, and that means hospitals are having to make truly difficult decisions when it comes to patient care.”

Donated blood is used for everything from saving trauma patients to those with cancer who need regular transfusions.

The American Red Cross is one of the main suppliers of blood products in Montana. The group also accounts for 40 percent of the nation’s supply of donated blood.

Ochsner says the pandemic has led to staffing shortages within the Red Cross, causing drives to be canceled. He also says fewer people are coming in to donate blood.

The American Red Cross says the decline in donations means demand for blood products from hospitals is around 25 percent higher than the available supply.

Providence St. Patrick Hospital Chief Nursing Officer Beth Hock says her staff are rationing blood products because of a limited supply.

“St. Pat’s physicians do a fabulous job of controlling who gets blood. But the real concern is, will we run out?”

If the hospital does run out of a particular type of blood or a transfusion product meant to bolster red blood cells, it can call the local Red Cross blood bank if they have additional supplies. But turnaround can take hours. The other backup supply option is in Great Falls, about eight hours away.

Hock says the hospital has come close to running out a few times.

“We’ve had some close calls because of trauma and surgeries. What will happen if that occurs, is we have to stop surgeries.”

Other Montana hospital systems like St. Peter’s Health in Helena say the current supply shortage hasn’t adversely impacted patient care and the hospital is taking steps to conserve supplies. Billings Clinic says it’s also watching its supply closely during the shortage.

Akin Demehin with the American Hospital Association says many hospitals across the country are considering whether they can keep performing elective procedures with the current blood supply. And it’s unclear when things could improve.

“It’s an incredibly precious resource and not one that lasts very long. So, it is sensitive to disruptions in supply.”

He says getting the word out about the ongoing shortage is a good first step to bringing more donors back in.

Back in Columbia Falls, Tessa Burns says she hopes to be a part of the solution.

“In about another eight weeks I’ll do it again, probably.”

The Red Cross and hospitals hope more people will do the same.

Aaron graduated from the University of Minnesota School of Journalism in 2015 after interning at Minnesota Public Radio. He landed his first reporting gig in Wrangell, Alaska where he enjoyed the remote Alaskan lifestyle and eventually moved back to the road system as the KBBI News Director in Homer, Alaska. He joined the MTPR team in 2019. Aaron now reports on all things in northwest Montana and statewide health care.