Local naval cadets are partnering with the American Red Cross Serving Northern Minnesota to ensure blood can be collected safely during the COVID-19 pandemic. It’s a good fit for the roughly 30 members of the Twin Ports Division of U.S. Navy Cadets, which is a medical unit.

“It gives them the opportunity to use the skills they’ve had training on and really make a difference,” said Dan Williams, executive director of the Red Cross chapter, which also covers Douglas County.

Lt. Davan Scott, commanding officer for the division, said the cadets play an active role in the community. They helped crew the William A. Irvin both times it was moved and have provided medical support for downed runners at Grandma’s Marathon. He contacted the Red Cross seeking additional volunteer opportunities and got the green light.

“We were humbled to be able to assist in screening donors for coronavirus symptoms during two blood drives,” Scott said, and hope to help at future events.

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The cadets help screen and register donors; they can also help out in the canteen. Five University of Minnesota-Duluth medical students have committed to volunteering more than 85 hours over the next month to support local blood drives, as well.

“It’s great to have these people who have some of these skills and passion for our community helping the Red Cross out with this,” Williams said.

The extra help comes at a key time. Due to current sanitation and distancing needs, the Red Cross needs nearly twice as many people to conduct a blood drive, Williams said. At the same time, there needs to be enough space for them all to maintain appropriate distance.

Blood buses nationwide have been parked because they don’t provide enough space, Williams said. Many of the schools and businesses where annual blood drives were held have been shuttered, but blood must still be collected. The longest any blood product lasts is 42 days. Some blood products, such as platelets used by people undergoing cancer treatment, last only three days.

“The idea of just stopping blood drives would be literally catastrophic to the health care system,” Williams said.

About a month ago, there was a critical shortage of blood during a two-week interval after Stay at Home orders were issued but before hospitals began canceling non-emergency surgeries.

“The public responded super well,” Williams said. “Even though a lot of blood drives got canceled, people turned out. The blood drives that were happening were completely full.”

The blood supply is stable, he said, but there’s a concern about what will happen in June or July, when non-emergency surgeries start up again. That’s when donations will become critical.

This is a marathon, not a sprint, Williams said.

“We’re really trying to get the message out that whether it’s making a plan to donate blood at a blood drive in July or whether it’s setting aside $100 out of your stimulus check to donate to a food shelf, there’s going to be a long-term recovery from this,” he said.

Walk-in donors are not being accepted at this time. Those seeking to give blood should check the Red Cross website for local blood drives and make an appointment at one of them.

Anyone interested in volunteering and any groups or organizations with a large space available to host a blood drive can contact Williams at 218-722-0071 or dan.williams@redcross.org.

Visit www.twinportsnscc.com to learn more about the Twin Ports Division of the U.S. Navy Cadet Corps. The program is open to cadets, ages 14-18 and midshipmen, ages 18-21.

This story was updated on April 28 at 1:40 p.m. to correct the website for the Twin Ports Division of the U.S. Navy Cadet Corps. It was originally posted on Thursday, April 23 at 4:30 p.m.