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Coping with baby formula shortages

Leialohaioi Tassillio has been unable to find a baby formula that her 4-month-old son, who has acid reflux, can be fed.

She had tried stores in Waterford and Lisbon, before her fiancé's parents sent two big cans of formula from Arizona.

"Recently I've even seen posts about local people who are buying up the formula and then selling it for like $30 more, and mothers are having to pay it, because we need to feed our babies," she said. "I get buying and reselling stuff, I understand that, but these are babies who are suffering."

Last month, she joined a private group chat where people share pictures of what store aisles look like. Tassillio said this is "definitely nice, because then we don't have to drive out to be disappointed."

Other groups have popped up on Facebook to help parents struggling with a nationwide shortage of baby formula. Find My Formula New London County CT had more than 100 members within 24 hours of its creation Saturday, while the group Find My Formula CT — created in January — has nearly 4,000 members. In the latter group, mothers post pictures of cans they're looking to give away or trade, and pictures of the types of formula they're seeking.

In February, the Food and Drug Administration ordered Abbott Nutrition — maker of Similac — to halt production at its Michigan plant after finding bacteria, and Abbott recalled several brands of formula. The FDA investigation began after two infants who drank formula from the facility died of a bacterial infection.

U.S. Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-3rd District, said a whistleblower registered complaints about plant conditions with the FDA in October, but the FDA didn't interview the complainant until December.

DeLauro, who is chair of the House Appropriations Committee, said on MSNBC Friday and Saturday she will introduce an emergency supplemental appropriation this week that will allow imported formula from FDA-approved facilities in Europe.

On Thursday, DeLauro announced the committee will hold two hearings to examine the Abbott recall, the FDA's handling of the recall, and the nationwide formula shortage. That includes one with FDA Commissioner Dr. Robert Califf Thursday at 10 a.m. and one with a panel of experts on May 26.

Supply chain issues from the COVID-19 pandemic are also contributing to the shortage.

On Friday, DeLauro and Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., wrote a letter to the FDA questioning when the agency expects shortages to return to pre-recall levels, how it is working with retailers to prevent price gouging, and what steps it is taking to improve shortages of specialized infant formula.

What local resources are available to mothers?

According to the pricing data company Datasembly, out-of-stock rates for baby formula hit 30% at the beginning of April and rose to 43% for the week ending May 8. Retailers like Walgreens, CVS and Target have limited the amount of formula a customer can buy.

So, what can desperate mothers do?

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services recommends people call their OGBYN or pediatrician to see if they have samples or can suggest a similar formula, call United Way's 2-1-1, or call a local food bank. People can also call Abbott's consumer hotline at 1-800-986-8540, or ask their OBGYN or pediatrician to submit an urgent product request through Abbott. The consumer service line Enfamil is 1-800-222-9123.

Cathy Mikolajczak, manager of the Family Support Center Program at Madonna Place in Norwich, said the agency is seeing an increase in new families seeking formula due to the shortage, and through grants and donations, it can provide one can of emergency formula on a monthly basis to families in need.

Families interested in services through Madonna Place can stop by 240 Main St. during business hours or call (860) 886-6600 to complete an intake, which requires a copy of a parent's photo ID and the child's birth certificate.

Groton Human Services has "very, very limited supplies" of baby formula and a lot of it is expiring this month, director Marge Fondulas said.

Regina Brady, director of the Women, Infants and Children program at Thames Valley Council for Community Action, said TVCCA is working with WIC clients on an individual basis and encouraging them to keep in contact with their providers to find solutions.

"They're really struggling because there's really not a rhyme or reason as to what stores are going to have what formulas, and even stores don't know," Brady said. "We're calling stores constantly for clients to see what they have in stock."

Brady said in extreme cases, TVCCA can work with its provider, Abbott, to get cases. But overall, she said "we don't have an answer for our clients. Our main sort of go-to response, if you will, is you need to work with your provider."

Brady said the biggest problems she is seeing are around specialized formulas, such as Similac NeoSure — which is for premature babies — and Similac Sensitive. She said TVCCA is also speaking with pregnant women, because "this is sort of an opportune time to encourage breastfeeding."

TVCCA posted on Facebook Saturday that if people are interested in support for relactation during the formula shortage, they can contact the WIC office, in Norwich at (860) 425-6562 or New London at (860) 425-6620.

Similarly, Backus Hospital lactation consultant Kara Giroux said if she can help breastfeeding mothers meet their goals, that also helps formula feeding mothers by decreasing demand for formula. She said upwards of 85 to 90% of patients who have babies at Backus start off breastfeeding. She can also help mothers who are feeding both ways to increase their breastfeeding.

But according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, among children born in Connecticut in 2018, only about 50.6% exclusively breastfed through three months and 30.3% through six months.

Giroux said Backus has started some practices to reduce waste so it isn't discarding formula unnecessarily.

For a variety of reasons, some mothers may not be able to breastfeed. Some examples are that a mother may be on a medication that is contraindicated with breastfeeding, can't produce enough breastmilk, or had a mastectomy. Brady also said some premature babies may not have the muscle strength to get breastmilk.

Groton mother Sarah Spencer said her son was born with a collapsed lung and had a hard time feeding. She pumped for a while and supplemented with formula but slowly went exclusively to formula when her supply went down.

She said a Similac formula was the only one that wouldn't upset baby Theodore's stomach, but by March she couldn't find it anywhere.

"I was freaking out. I cried to my parents about it, because I can't find a formula that's not messing him up," Spencer said. Fortunately, Theodore is now a year old and she transitioned him to cow's milk a couple of weeks ago.

Warnings: Don't make homemade formula, and beware of scams

Erin Artale, a nurse who now works at Pfizer, said she has been lucky to get formula for her 5-month-old daughter through an Amazon Subscribe & Save subscription.

"Our subscription was a couple days late this month, but that was nothing compared to not getting it at all. We're good for probably about six weeks, because we order in bulk," Artale said.

She echoes the warnings from fellow medical professionals against homemade formula, saying that a lot of times if people are making their own formula, it won't be the right ratio of nutrients to water.

The American Academy of Pediatrics said in a recent blog post that homemade formula doesn't meet a baby's needs, and that infant deaths have been reported from the use of some homemade formulas.

In addition to lack of availability, mothers also have concerns over price gouging and the black market.

Asked if he is doing anything to address these issues, Attorney General William Tong said Friday — in a statement provided through a spokesperson — that Connecticut's retail price gouging statute is tied to an emergency declaration by the governor, and right now, his office's price gouging authority is specific to gas prices.

But Tong said he is "speaking with other attorneys general across the country to consider every legal option available to hold sellers accountable and ensure safe, affordable access to formula." He said if people suspect formula is tampered or stolen to report it to his office or police.

The Better Business Bureau has warned of scams in which a poster says they have formula available, and the buyer makes a payment through PayPal or Venmo but the formula never arrives.

e.moser@theday.com

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