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Hospitals, blood center worried as ‘perfect storm’ shadows Northland’s blood supply

The Memorial Blood Centers supplies most of the Northland's blood and is looking for healthy people who can consistently donate every eight weeks.

Geoff Popham, left, of Duluth, smiles as phlebotomist Emma Orsak, of Superior, places the needle for a donation during a blood drive at the St. Louis County Courthouse on Friday, July 9, 2021, in Duluth. (Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com)

Since the early days of the pandemic, hospitals and blood centers around the nation have announced countless blood emergencies, yet Maria Beaver with Essentia Health in Duluth said she’s never been more concerned about supply until now.

“Even though at Essentia we’re OK right now, I do worry about us getting through the rest of the summer,” said Beaver, a pathologist and transfusion services medical director. “On a daily basis it’s like, ‘Are we OK today? Are we going to be OK tomorrow?’”

St. Luke's Lab Director Jennifer Viergutz said the last couple months have brought the worst blood shortages in her 20-year career.

“There’s a little bit of fear that we’re never going to get back to being comfortable all the time,” Viergutz said. “There used to be more days where we don’t even think about (the blood supply) at all because it’s there when we need it.”


Jennifer Viergutz.jpg
Jennifer Viergutz

For the last month, St. Luke’s has been stocked somewhere between its comfort and absolute-minimum levels. That changed for the first time Friday when the hospital could request a larger order of blood from Memorial Blood Centers, which supplies nearly all of the blood used in the Northland.

Regardless, the situation can change quickly.

“If you have a patient who’s been in a really bad accident and is bleeding a lot, especially depending on their blood type, they can burn through your entire supply really fast,” Viergutz said.

A tray of Type O-negative blood donations sits in a drawer in a cooler at Memorial Blood Centers on Thursday, July 8, 2021, in Duluth. Type O-negative donations are the most sought-after donation because it is the universal blood type, meaning that anyone can receive Type O-negative blood. But people who have Type O-negative blood can only receive Type O-negative blood. (Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com)
Clint Austin / Duluth News Tribune

Those on the front lines remain worried about the remaining summer months ahead and are urging people to donate routinely, not just when the need is the most urgent. Blood donors are eligible to donate every eight weeks, or 56 days, which is what Geoff Popham, of Duluth, does.

“It’s such an easy way to do something positive in the community. There’s always a need for hospitals to have blood,” Popham said at a blood drive outside the St. Louis County Courthouse in Duluth on Thursday. “And you get juice and cookies, too.”


Neither Essentia Health nor St. Luke’s, both in Duluth, have had to alter their operations. In a worst-case-scenario situation, a hospital would delay care, like an elective surgery or transfusion for cancer patients, but before that, hospitals have strategies in place to make their blood supply stretch.

Beaver said that whenever Memorial Blood Centers or Essentia sends out news releases announcing an emergency and urging people to donate, it’s not long before the stock is replenished.

A blood donation is collected on a mixing table at Memorial Blood Centers on Thursday, July 8, 2021, in Duluth. (Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com)

“The generosity of our donors is really incredible, and the response from the community has been amazing,” Beaver said.

Michele Keil, senior account manager with Memorial Blood Centers, stressed that they need that response to continue, because there’s no substitute for donated blood.

“A lot of times people respond to an emergency situation in the immediate and then a few weeks down the road we start to see that dwindle and then we’re right back where we started,” Keil said.

Multiple factors have converged at once this summer to create what Keil calls a “perfect storm” for the blood supply.


In a normal year, blood donation centers don’t see as many donors in the summer months. Schools aren’t hosting blood drives and regular donors are off taking vacations or making the most of the region’s short summer season.

“Especially coming out of a pandemic, people are eager to do those things even more,” Keil said. “Summer has always been hard for us. This summer is even harder.”

The Duluth center, located in Burning Tree Plaza, is open five days a week, but only at half capacity to maintain social distancing, meaning they can’t funnel as many donors in at a time.

Phlebotomist Emma Orsak, of Superior, inputs information about a blood donation of the Memorial Blood Centers bloodmobile Friday, July 9, 2021, in Duluth. (Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com)

Rachel Swanson, of Carlton, donated a pint of blood for the 16th time on Thursday at the center. She started donating blood when she was in college because her parents both donated.

“It’s an easy way to help,” Swanson said. “I don’t do a lot of volunteering, so this is my way to give back.”


Phlebotomist Katie Johnson, of Superior, applies a bandage to Rachel Swanson, of Carlton, after she donated blood at Memorial Blood Centers on Thursday, July 8, 2021, in Duluth. (Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com)

Because blood drives at schools and work settings haven’t picked up again, Memorial Blood Centers relies heavily on parking its bloodmobile buses in a centralized location for a community-based drive. The center currently runs about 30 drives a month, half of what it averaged before the pandemic.

A bus parked outside the St. Louis County Courthouse in Duluth was booked all day Friday and had more than 40 donors.

Juhl Halvorson, of Duluth, exits the Memorial Blood Centers bloodmobile after donating blood Friday, July 9, 2021, in Duluth. Memorial Blood Centers has three bloodmobiles that work in the Northland. (Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com)
Clint Austin / Duluth News Tribune

Keil’s hopeful the center’s schedule will pick back up again in the fall. But she doesn’t expect that to come without challenges. She expects another year of having to navigate the changing work and school landscapes in order to stay connected to donors.

Keil herself has witnessed the power of those who volunteer an hour of their time to donate.

“I’ve had family members need blood,” Keil said. “In those moments when you can put a face to that patient that’s needing that volunteer's precious, lifesaving donation, you’re incredibly thankful as a family member.”


A donation area at Memorial Blood Centers, seen on Thursday, July 8, 2021, in Duluth. (Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com)

Phlebotomist Katie Johnson, of Superior, prepares for a blood donation to be sent to the lab at Memorial Blood Centers on Thursday, July 8, 2021, in Duluth. (Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com)

Memorial Blood Centers laboratory technician Nathan Schacht, of Duluth, labels a box of frozen plasma Thursday, July 8, 2021, in Duluth. (Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com)

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