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Monday, November 30, 2020

Amid COVID, programs scramble to provide moms with milk, diapers and more

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Earlier this year, Aime’e Elliot couldn’t keep any solid foods down while pregnant with son Jacion. So the 28-year-old Indianapolis woman called a community group before even considering her doctor. 

Healthy Start advised Elliot to eat dry foods like cereal to calm her nausea. That worked. 

It’s why she’s birthed four children with the group’s support. “They treat you as their own,” she said. “They treat you as family.”

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to hit marginalized families hard, Healthy Start and similar organizations that provide maternal and infant care are seeing a spike in calls.

Healthy Start offers free education and support services to pregnant women and their families in an effort to eliminate disparities in birth outcomes in Marion County. Since the pandemic began, more than 1,000 parents have received its services and they are often in need of diapers, cribs and utility assistance, organizers said.

Data for Marion County shows a stark racial disparity in infant mortality — and factors that contribute to it. Seventy-five percent of white women begin prenatal care in the first trimester, but that drops to 53% for Black women and 44% for Hispanic women.

“We lose about one school bus of infants each month,” The Milk Bank Executive Director Freedom Kolb said about Indiana’s mortality rate. “Can you imagine if one school bus were crashing every month? We would do something about it.” 

Giving nutrient-rich milk to babies who can’t always nurse is one way to improve outcomes, she said. The Milk Bank receives human milk from donors, then pasteurizes, freezes and distributes it, especially for premature or sick infants. Kolb said her nonprofit is the state’s only donor human milk bank and has seen demand boom amid the pandemic.

She said social distancing measures at hospitals have sent some of the bank’s tiny clients home early with moms who, for various reasons, may be unable to produce enough milk.

“They’re just receiving this big, wrap-around hug from all the moms still supplying their milk and finding safe ways to do that,” Kolb said, reiterating how pasteurization inactivates the coronavirus. 

The Milk Bank has helped more than 200 families this year. Typically, recipient fees are covered by hospitals for inpatient use. For families facing financial barriers, the organization offers help based on a sliding scale. The demand for financial aid has mirrored the timeline of the pandemic, but so has the benevolence of donors. 

“We saw our moms step up and protect the state‘s babies almost like never before,” Kolb said. “We felt this collective force of ‘not on our watch.’”

With more families requesting free milk, donor moms have produced more than 500,000 ounces this year — an 8% increase over last year. Kolb said those extra ounces can add up to 100,000 additional feedings for the most fragile infants.

On one Saturday this month, nearly 300 children got help from an organization that provides another vital child care product: diapers. 

A third of Hoosier families struggle to afford clean diapers, Indiana Diaper Bank President and CEO Rachael Suskovich said. 

“You can‘t drop your child off at day care without at least a full day‘s supply of diapers,” she said. “Child care workers in neighborhoods that are high need areas will agree parents are missing work. They‘re not dropping their children off because they don‘t have those diapers to send them to care.”

Suskovich said studies have shown children facing diaper shortages go to the doctor four times more often for urinary tract infections and diaper rashes. 

A clean diaper can also reduce the risk of child abuse, she said.

“Nobody wants to admit that they can’t provide clean diapers for their child,” Suskovich said. “We have been struggling to keep up with the staggering need.”

One Indianapolis mother who came to the diaper bank was wrapping her children in dish towels and grocery bags before receiving a donation this month, Suskovich said. 

As Hoosier families struggle with tight budgets during a pandemic that has shuttered businesses, she said the bank has been busier than ever. In March and April alone, it distributed 150,000 diapers — as many as it handed out in 2019.

In Marion County, the overall infant mortality rate improved in 2019 from the previous year, and the rate for Black babies was the lowest ever. Still, Black infants are two times more likely to die before age 1 than their white counterparts. 

Health advocates said they want more people to know about resources that can change outcomes. 

Elliott said she’ll always turn to Healthy Start for a pregnancy.

Now, 5-month-old Jacion is a cute reminder of Gov. Eric Holcomb’s goal for Indiana to have the lowest infant mortality rate in the Midwest by 2024.

“It is for us,” she said. “Our Black women in our community are the safety of us and our well-being and that of our children.”  

This story was reported as part of a partnership between WFYI, Side Effects Public Media and the Indianapolis Recorder. Contact Hilary Powell at hpowell@wfyi.org. Follow her on Twitter @mshilary.

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