Alaska blood bank says nationwide shortage highlights local need: ‘We’re pretty much on our own’

A person wearing a gown and gloves holds a bag full of blood.
Donated blood at a donation center in Juneau. (KTOO file photo)

The state’s only blood distributor sent out an urgent plea for blood donations in August. Blood Bank of Alaska told potential donors that there was a looming shortfall in the state’s inventory of blood products.

“We’ve actually still been able to supply Alaska hospitals with blood. Obviously, that’s the number one concern and priority, said Wes Dahlgren, who is in charge of collections for the non-profit.

He said donor response to the pre-emptive alert has been outstanding over the last two weeks. But, he said, the need was critical. Usually, the organization has a three to give day supply on hand. And, at the time of the alert, it was down to less than a day’s supply of certain blood types.

An empty glass case.
Bare shelves at a blood distribution center in Washington. (Image courtesy of Bloodworks Northwest.)

Dahlgren said there’s still a significant need for increased donations. Usually, he said, Alaska can reach out to blood banks in the Lower 48 if inventory falls short. But not lately.

“Given the shortage around the country, that’s not possible,” he said. “Right now, we’re pretty much on our own.”

Curt Bailey runs Bloodworks Northwest, a regional blood distribution center in Washington state that has distributed blood products to Alaska in the past.

“In our main storage facility, there are banks of refrigerators,” said Bailey. Normally, one could walk into that refrigeration bank and be surrounded by shelves of, of blood. And now when one walks in, they’re mostly empty.”

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He said demand has increased nationwide for blood products. He attributes that, in part, to people seeking care now after deferring surgery and other treatments during the first year of the pandemic.

That’s paired with a drop in blood donations, he said.

Also, mobile collections units are usually cramped quarters, so his group shut them down for the pandemic.

“The stocks of blood that all blood collectors, like Bloodworks, keeps for emergencies started to dwindle because we had to use that blood for patients who really needed it,” he said. “And it’s been very, very difficult to keep up.”

In his region, Bailey said, providers are limiting transfusions. Dahlgren at Blood Bank of Alaska said that’s not happening in Alaska.

You can give blood regardless of COVID-19 vaccination status, he said.

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