Kelly Kaleta of McHenry is taking her newborn, Carter, for a one-month appointment this week, during which she plans to ask: Where is the baby formula she needs to keep him healthy and what can she do if it’s not available?
Carter, who was born prematurely at five pounds, three ounces, was put on Similac Neosure formula before leaving the hospital.
“It’s literally nowhere to be found,” Kaleta said. “We can’t even order it online. My husband had to travel all the way to Chicago, and he bought the last five in the store.”
The formula shortage is “unprecedented,” McHenry County Department of Health spokeswoman Lindsey Salvatelli said.
Some stores are enforcing limits on the number of cans of baby formula that can be bought, said Kay Chase, the Women, Infants and Children coordinator for the DeKalb County Health Department. She also has seen people selling cans of baby formula, even the ones distributed for free by WIC, for a profit on social media and eBay.
“It’s horribly sad to see the hoarding, price gouging and reselling that’s happening,” Chase said. “Formula is the primary form of nutrition for babies for the first year of life. Babies need the formula to be healthy, grow and have proper nutrition.”
Datasembly, which tracks baby formula stock at more than 11,000 stores, found that the nationwide out-of-stock percentage is 43% for the week ending May 8.
“It’s horrible having to go into store after store, and when you go in, the shelves are almost bare,” said Lois Repede, who has been fostering newborns with her husband for 14 years. “This is positively the worst. I’ve never had a problem getting the formula I needed until I got this baby.”
Currently, the Carpentersville couple is caring for a three-week-old boy who was born six weeks prematurely. The child requires a special formula for preemies, which she said is “horribly difficult” to find. She’s been making do, however, thanks to a wide network of family and friends who are picking up bottles whenever they see it on store shelves.
“Supply chain challenges, product recalls and historic inflation” are the three factors leading to the baby formula shortage, Datasembly Chief Executive Officer Ben Reich said in a news release.
The baby formula company Abbott recalled Similac, Alimentum and EleCare that were manufactured in Sturgis, Michigan, in February.
Abbott said in a statement Wednesday that it could reopen the impacted plant in as soon as two weeks if the federal Food and Drug Administration gives its approval. The company would begin production of EleCare, Alimentum and metabolic formulas first and then begin production of Similac and other formulas.
It would take six to eight weeks after the site is restarted for product to hit the shelves, the company said.
The McHenry County Department of Health is “doing everything possible” to support families on the area’s WIC program navigate the shortage in the meantime, Salvatelli said in a statement.
WIC is a nutrition program for low-income women who are pregnant, recently had a baby, or are breastfeeding, and for children up to age 5.
Pregnancy care centers in McHenry County, such as 1st Way Life Center in Johnsburg, also are starting to have trouble keeping a consistent supply, Director Judy Cocks said.
“It’s starting to show up now,” she said. “We’ll probably be struggling like everyone else.”
The organization runs off donations, typically from residents who spot a good deal from stores or from food pantries. Typically, the group gets a “comprehensive” array, but the shortages could cause issues with getting specialty formulas, she said.
“This is just the beginning,” Cocks said. “New clients are calling out of the blue because they’re desperate. I expect that’ll just continue. … It’s frustrating for all. And it’s very sad. We’re really up against it.”
Dr. Adam Barsella, a Northwestern Medicine pediatrician who practices in St. Charles, said he has worked with new parents to find alternatives, including using a generic version of a similar formula and shopping online.
“People are hesitant to switch formulas because maybe they’re worried the baby will spit up more or have abdominal pain, but there won’t be a lot of harm to the child by switching formulas,” he said. “The generic formulas are similar to the brand formulas, and they have to have certain safety and quality metrics if they’re on the market. I think sometimes generic anything has a negative stigma, but I almost always recommend generic in medicine because they’re almost exactly equivalent to the branded product.”
Jennifer Kleckner, the lead outreach specialist nurse with Northwestern Medicine Kishwaukee Hospital’s Breastfeeding Center, recommends parents consult with their infant’s care provider for the safest feeding options for their baby.
That may include donor human milk or possibly re-lactating in certain circumstances, she said.
“I am seeing a great deal of homemade baby formula recipes being shared on social media and I find it very alarming,” Kleckner said. “This is not a safe option for infants.”
Barsella also advised against homemade baby formula or diluting the formula to make it last longer.
The best thing parents can do, Barsella said, is to plan ahead and understand how much supply they have and when they’ll need more, and the possibility of having to look in different places to find it. He also said parents should not hesitate to contact their pediatrician to find other options that are best for the baby.
“The major thing parents should know is they’re not alone. There are a team of people who can help to find a solution,” he said. “Use your pediatrician’s office as a resource. Parents shouldn’t panic, although I’m sure they’re feeling some anxiety.”
Stay-at-home mom Nicki Young, who lives with her husband near Johnsburg, said she has struggled to find the formula she needs for her five-month-old son, Jack, who she suspects is lactose intolerant.
She plans to stick with soy formulas for now, but stores’ rationing formula and more shortages are a concern as Jack has been eating more as he grows, she said.
“I get 22 ounces a week but that’s not lasting,” Young said. “I’m not panicking yet, but it’s weird. I understand it’s part of the shortage of material and shipping, like anything else we can’t find.”
This story is a part of the Solving for Chicago collaborative effort by newsrooms to cover the workers deemed “essential” during COVID-19 and how the pandemic is reshaping work and employment.
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