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Pandemic still suppressing blood donations in Minnesota

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Minnesota’s blood supply for surgeries and transfusions is draining, in part because companies and schools haven’t resumed collection drives that they canceled during the pandemic.

Memorial Blood Centers announced an emergency shortage Thursday that left it below the recommended five- to seven-day stockpile to ensure an adequate supply for Minnesota hospitals. Supplies were down to a day or two for type O blood that any patients can receive, and for rarer type B negative blood.

“I liken it to having a case of long COVID. It just doesn’t seem to be getting any better,” said Phil Losacker, community relations manager for Memorial, which is the primary supplier of blood products to HCMC, Children’s Minnesota and other hospitals. “Our access to donors out in the community has been severely limited.”

A shortage after any holiday is common, especially Labor Day, but a combination of factors has made this one worse and possibly longer-lasting. The American Red Cross reported last week that it was sending more blood to U.S. hospitals than it was taking in and that it received 30,000 fewer donations than expected in August.

“Many corporations don’t host blood drives (any longer) because they have remote workers,” said Sue Thesenga, a spokesperson for Red Cross’ Minnesota and Dakotas region.

Blood collection centers were concerned before the pandemic about the lack of youth to replace longtime volunteers whose donations were slowing in their senior years. Matters worsened when COVID-19 emerged and donor events were canceled or curtailed to reduce the spread of the coronavirus that causes the infectious disease.

Memorial participated in 977 fewer blood drives in the first nine months of 2023 in Minnesota compared to the same time period in 2019. The result was a 47% decline in blood units collected and a 50% decline in first-time donors, who are more likely to take part in school or workplace events.

Minnesota’s two largest trauma centers, HCMC in Minneapolis and Regions Hospital in St. Paul, reported no impact on patient care yet and said all surgeries remained as scheduled.

Emergency declarations usually drive donors and prevent hospitals from reaching such crisis points, but that isn’t ideal, said Dr. Jed Gorlin, medical director for Memorial and chief medical officer for America’s Blood Centers, a national advocacy group. “We don’t want to train the public to only come in when there are these blood emergencies. What we want is to maintain people being regular blood donors.”

Memorial is simultaneously encouraging the resumption of school and corporate events, and nudging donors from past events to make appointments at its local collection centers. Red blood cells can be donated anywhere, but platelets also are in short supply, and are needed to prevent or reduce bleeding in surgeries and treatments. Platelets can only be donated at collection centers.

John Blackford of Chanhassen felt no claustrophobia serving on Navy submarines when he was younger, but he felt too squeamish to donate until he learned he had too much iron in his blood and that it was good for his health. His blood levels stabilized long ago, but the 42-year-old got in the habit of donating and was back at Memorial’s collection center at Eden Prairie on Saturday.

“I just feel good after I do it,” he said. “It’s good to give back. Its part of my Saturday routine — I just go here, bring a newspaper, read, get it done.”

A few chairs down, Wayzata High School English teacher Kathryn Kottke was grading a stack of literature essays while donating platelets, which takes a little over an hour.

“I can’t leave,” she said. “So I’m now a captive grader.”

Donors sometimes receive gift cards, beyond the snacks and drinks to rehydrate afterward, but giving blood is mostly an unpaid service. Blood center leaders are considering more incentives to invigorate the donor population, such as Surly Brewing’s popular offer over the past decade of a pint glass and a beer voucher in exchange for a pint of blood.

The Minneapolis beermaker is hosting its next collection event from 3-8 p.m. Wednesday, and expanded capacity at Memorial’s request because of the blood shortage. Other upcoming events are listed on the Memorial and Red Cross websites.

Gorlin has short-term optimism because high schools are back in session and many still host events that will replenish the blood supply. Memorial also will gain a wider donor pool when it switches Sept. 25 to conform with new federal guidelines.

Men who are sexually active with other men were generally barred from donating because of the elevated prevalence of HIV in that population, but the U.S. Food and Drug Administration found earlier this year that the policy was overcautious given the precision of modern blood testing for the sexually transmitted infection.

The Red Cross switched Aug. 7 to the new federal guidance, which removes sexual orientation from consideration but still defers donations by anyone who has had anal sex in the last three months with new or multiple partners.

Long term, Gorlin remains concerned about the generational shift and the fact that younger donors aren’t replacing older ones. At 67, he estimated he has donated 30 gallons of blood products in his lifetime.

For-profit companies pay people for their plasma, the liquid component of blood, and Gorlin said that might be a consideration to kickstart a new generation of donors.

“Will we be able to maintain a donor base without paying?” he asked. “I don’t know.”

Correction:
A previous version of the photo caption for this story mistakenly said Kathryn Kottke was donating plasma at Memorial Blood Center in Eden Prairie.



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Traffic disrupted but no injuries reported after BNSF freight train derails near Big Lake, Minn.

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A train derailment near Big Lake is disrupting traffic and slowing the train company’s main line Saturday.

According to the Sherburne County Sheriff’s Office, the BNSF train was carrying consumer goods when it derailed around 3:15 a.m. At least 15 rail cars were involved, blocking the crossing at 172nd Street NW. between 197th Avenue and County Rd. 14.

A BNSF representative confirmed the derailment and said crews were working “as quickly and safely as possible” to clear the wreckage.

The cause of the derailment is under investigation. No injuries have been reported, and the Sheriff’s Office said there was no threat to the public. It’s unclear what goods the train carried, or when crews expected to clear the wreckage.

A broken rail track caused a BNSF train derailment in Raymond, Minn., last year, spilling ethanol and corn syrup, which caught fire. Hundreds living nearby were forced to evacuate. Estimates at that time suggested repairing damage to railroad tracks and equipment at $1.9 million. The environmental cleanup was estimated to cost $1.6 million.



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The VA wants your help picking a name for a new clinic for female veterans

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Blueprints for the new Women’s Clinic at the Minneapolis VA have almost everything.

The new clinic space will be airy and accessible, with room for a dizzying array of veteran health services, from lactation consultation to cancer screenings. After years of planning, the groundbreaking is set for September at the Veterans Affairs Health Center.

All the clinic needs now is a name.

The VA is hoping for the public’s help on that one.

If you know a veteran, living or deceased, who served her country and her community, the VA is accepting nominations until Oct. 30.

The naming committee will be looking for veterans who were honorably discharged and who had a connection to the Minneapolis VA or the Midwest region it serves.

Maybe the honor will go to a towering figure from state history. Maybe it will go to a living legend like 101-year-old World War II veteran Marion Peck of Le Sueur, a finalist for the 2024 SilverSneakers Member of the Year award. We’ll find out if she wins on July 22.

“She did squats for me, the first time I met her,” said Dr. Alisa Duran, VA women’s health medical director. “With our aging veterans, you always do sort of a ‘get up and go’ evaluation and look at how they walk and ask about falls. And she’s like, ‘Watch this!’… We see a lot of our veterans out in the community doing really cool things.”

Women are the fastest-growing group within the VA — the number of women veterans has tripled since 2001. The Minneapolis VA Health Care System served more than 7,000 women veterans last year alone. But the clinic space that greeted them was less than they deserved.

The current Women’s Clinic sits in an old ICU deep inside the sprawling Minneapolis campus. Veterans had to thread through a series of corridors, waiting rooms and unrelated departments to reach the clinic.

Beyond an inconvenience, not having direct access to care could be a painful barrier for patients dealing with service-related trauma. One out of every three women veterans reports that they experienced sexual harassment or assault during their time in the military. The new facility will allow them to walk in directly from the parking lot, without facing the crowds inside the larger complex.

A great deal of thought will go into the new facility. The new mammogram suites will allow veterans to control the compression of a procedure that can trigger anxiety. The Women’s Clinic treats women still in their childbearing years, women going through menopause, all the way up to the Greatest Generation, still going strong at 101 like Marion Peck.

“I loved the Navy,” Peck said during a recent VA interview about her SilverSneakers competition. “If they’d take a 101-year-old I’d be on an aircraft carrier tomorrow.”

For veterans who were exposed to toxic environments like burn pits during their service, the clinic is expanding cancer screenings for at-risk groups. The new clinic space will have room for classrooms and support groups to meet. There will be social workers and specialists and counselors on hand to help new mothers — veterans can be at higher risk of postpartum depression — through the first year.

A clinic this good is going to need a good name.

“We wanted this new clinic space to represent our women veterans,” Duran said. “I think one of the best ways to do that is to name it in honor of one of our female veterans.”

The name that goes above the clinic door won’t necessarily be the veteran with the highest rank or highest profile. The committee that chooses the name will include a number of women veterans, and they know the qualities they’re looking for.

The woman whose name goes on the building will be someone whose life is an example of “service beyond their years of military service,” said Emma O’Brien, women veterans program manager. “Of course they’ll want to know about what accolades they had while they were on military duty, but also how they’ve continued to serve their community beyond that.”

Anyone who follows the Minnesota Department of Transportation’s annual snowplow naming contest knows how much Minnesotans enjoy naming things.

Last year, the St. Cloud VA Healthcare system set out to rename a hallway in honor of one of central Minnesota’s women veterans. They received two dozen nominations. The honor went to the late Paynesville native Winnifred “Winnie” Galbraith, who served in the Women’s Army Corps during WWII and went on to long years of service with American Legion posts in Little Falls and Waite Park.

The first nomination came in hours after the VA put out the call.

“This went out yesterday and I received one yesterday afternoon. They were ready,” O’Brien said. “I’m not surprised. I’ve had several people, male and female veterans, tell me, ‘You should name the new clinic after so-and-so.’ Everyone has someone they think it should be named after.”

Construction is expected to begin in September and the new clinic should open in 2026. If you know a good name for the new clinic, you can download the nomination form at va.gov/minneapolis-health-care/health-services/women-veteran-care.

If Marion Peck’s name doesn’t end up on the building, maybe we can get a statue of her out front, in silver sneakers.



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SWAT standoff in Edina ends peacefully

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A four-hour standoff Saturday morning between a suspect and a SWAT team in a residential area in Edina ended peacefully, authorities said.

According to a news release from the Edina Police Department, officers were sent to a disturbance on the 5100 block of Schaefer Road at about 8 a.m. After learning the suspect could be armed and dangerous, they shut down the area and called in the SWAT team and negotiators “out of abundance of caution.”

After negotiations with Edina police, the subject peacefully surrendered at 12:30 p.m. Several agencies assisted in the incident, which remains under investigation.



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