ERIN TIERNEY/CHRONICLE PHOTO The shelves were bare at the Walmart on Olympic Street in Springfield on Monday, June 6, as limitations have been placed on the quantity sold. A sign to customers reads: “Effective immediately, all infant formula sales are limited to five units per child per customer per day.”
As an unprecedented shortage of baby formula sweeps across the nation, the scarcity can be felt locally among some parents; however, area pediatricians say that so far, the crisis has been manageable, though distressing.
Leslie Pelinka, who is a pediatrician at PeaceHealth RiverBend, said that she’s never experienced or anticipated such a shortage.
In her 15 years with the hospital, “A formula shortage never crossed my mind. It just seems like a given. It’s sort of like the housing market, gasoline coming from the pump or food on the store shelves … families rely on it,” Pelinka said. “It is just something that you take for granted, like it’s always going to be there.”
Existing supply chain disruptions caused by the pandemic were already affecting supply, and were worsened by a recent product recall at an Abbott Nutrition manufacturing plant in Michigan. Abbott Nutrition produces almost 50% of the formula in the nation supplying popular brands such as Similac and EleCare.
The shortage for some is reminiscent of the toilet paper shortage in the early stages of the pandemic, which resulted in bare shelves and hiked prices. The prices of formulas have also inflated as much as $5 per can in the recent months, until Gov. Kate Brown declared “abnormal market distribution,” making it illegal for stores to raise prices by more than 15%.
While neither PeaceHealth nor McKenzie-Willamette have seen babies admitted for malnourishment, it’s a reality elsewhere in the country. The shortage – expected to last for up to six more weeks – has driven parents to seek alternate methods for feeding their children, such as concocting homemade recipes.
Francesca Hernandez, a pediatric hospitalist at McKenzie-Willamette Hospital, is adamant in her disapproval of these methods.
“We don’t recommend doing that,” Hernandez said. “We don’t know if (homemade formula) provides enough nutrition, and we don’t know if it’s actually safe … Even though it looks tempting, please, please don’t do that.”
According to The American Academy of Pediatrics, deaths and hospitalizations have been linked to the use of homemade formulas, made from recipes often posted on unaccredited sites.
“I guarantee that none of the formula recipes that are out there have been posted by anybody in a position of authority,” Pelinka said. “That’s really dangerous and scary.”
Formula dilution is another cause for concern among health officials.
“If parents were giving (their babies) diluted formula thinking they were stretching it out … that can predispose them to seizures,” Hernandez warned.
Pelinka said she’s been fielding questions from parents, specifically as it relates to switching types of formula.
“Often (babies) seem to do better with one type of formula than another, but if that formula is not available, the other types won’t be dangerous for your baby,” Pelinka reassured. “Your baby may be fussy or maybe gassy, but their health is not going to be put in danger.”
So, what can parents do to help fill the void?
“I understand the instinct to want to hoard as much as you can find, but if you can limit yourself to a two-week supply so that others can be allowed to purchase what they need … then we trust the system to continue to put out at least the minimum amount needed to keep everybody in stock,” Pelinka said.
To limit hoarding, stores are putting a cap on how many cans can be purchased at once. Walmart is limiting customers to buying only five containers, for instance, and CVS is allowing only three.
Pelika is directing qualifying families to the Lane County Women, Infants & Children (WIC) office, which is a program that aids qualifying families in getting access to proper nutrition.