RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — Mayor Levar Stoney has asked Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin to declare a State of Emergency in an attempt to help families in the commonwealth who are suffering from the national baby formula shortage.

“I cannot think of a greater emergency than the inability for families to feed their babies, and I hope Governor Youngkin, a parent himself, feels the exact same way,” Stoney said in a call of action Monday. “It’s our hope that they are willing to partner and do everything they can to make sure infants don’t go hungry in the Commonwealth of Virginia.”

In Richmond, Stoney said that pediatricians have been overwhelmed by calls from families who have gone to multiple stores without being able to find anything. The mayor said some families have been turning to unsafe methods for feeding their infants, like mixing Carnation Instant Breakfast or even Karo Syrup.

(Photos: Tyler Thrasher 8News)

Abbott Nutrition and the crisis for WIC families

Stoney claimed the crisis is even more dire for infants with dietary restrictions and for families who benefit from WIC, a program created to assist low-income women, infants and children.

The mayor said that WIC families have faced even greater challenges because until recently, only one formula manufacturer was WIC-approved. That supplier was Abbott Nutrition; maker of Similac brand baby formula.

In February, the Abbott Nutrition plant in Michigan was forced to shut down over possible contamination after four infants were discovered with a rare bacterial infection after ingesting products made from the plant. Two of the infants died.

8News reached out to the governor’s office to request an interview in response to the mayor’s calls for a State of Emergency declaration, as well as the baby formula shortage’s impacts on families in Virginia. Although a spokesperson declined the interview request, 8News received the following statement:

The Biden administration’s FDA decision to shut down manufacturing without a viable back up plan has caused widespread chaos for parents across the country. VDH is closely monitoring supply of formula and answering questions from parents about alternatives, as well as tracking the market for any evidence of price gouging. Although not the cause of the shortage, the administration is prepared to take action if evidence of price gouging is found.  Getting inventory in Virginia back to normal levels is a priority for the Governor and his team. He has and will continue to engage with our federal counterparts and industry leaders on their production capabilities. 

Youngkin spokesperson Macaulay Porter

Due to the ensuing shortage, the Virginia WIC Office provided temporary approval of alternative formula brands in April.

“I applaud the WIC Office here in Virginia for this initial step,” Stoney said. “Now, families have multiple options for formula in any store that is a WIC vendor.”

Stoney’s call to action

The mayor then called on Virginia’s leaders to expand the WIC alternative formula approval indefinitely.

“Bottom line; no baby should suffer because of a monopoly,” Stoney said.

The mayor also requested that commonwealth leaders declare a State of Emergency. If enacted, Virginia’s anti-price gouging statutes would be triggered, and consumers would be protected from paying inflated prices for necessities.

“We know that the governor and state government are doing everything they can as well to meet the moment of this crisis,” Stoney said. “We see ourselves as partners in this mission to meet the moment.”

Stoney tweeted a copy of the letter sent to Gov. Glenn Youngkin on Twitter on Monday afternoon.

Taking initiative in Richmond

As for the local level, Stoney announced that the City of Richmond would be working with the Robins Foundation and Urban Baby Beginnings to invest a total of $45,000 to go toward supporting WIC families. A spokesperson for the mayor’s office said that $20,000 of that would come from the foundation, with the additional $25,000 in proposed funding coming from the city.

“It’s obvious that — we here at the local level — we can’t build factories or otherwise address the supply chain issues,” Stoney said. “But we can help ensure that our most vulnerable families have access to formula to feed their babies while we wait for the federal and state governments to do what they can as well.”

Eva Colen of the City of Richmond Office of Children and Families also suggested that non-WIC families could help those in need simply by buying brands that are not WIC restrictive.

“When you go to that shopping center, take the extra step to look and see if there is a purple sticker on the price label that says WIC on it because that means somebody has no other options,” Colen said. “If you are purchasing formula and you are not on WIC, do what you can to buy those options that are not WIC-restrictive.”

In a previously released statement, Gov. Youngkin noted that his administration has been engaged with industry leaders on their production capabilities, and that the Virginia Department of Health (VDH) is working to ensure there are adequate supplies of baby formula statewide.

8News reached out to VDH, and received the following statement:

The Virginia WIC Program continues to navigate through the formula shortage issues. With the Abbott formula recall, Virginia WIC was able to expand formula options available to our participants. The list of the most recently updated Virginia WIC-approved formulas and substitutions can be located on our webpage at virginiawic.com. The low inventory of formula is causing many of our participants to search at multiple authorized vendors to locate necessary products. In some instances, Virginia WIC is able to order formula through our formula distribution warehouse for participants; however many of those items are backordered and out of stock as well. Virginia WIC continues to work with our participants and their healthcare providers to help locate the necessary formulas.

State WIC Director Paula N. Garrett, MS, RD

A spokesperson also noted that, “VDH is looking for all possible solutions to alleviate the impact of the infant formula shortage.”

According to the department’s national infant formula representative, Abbot has been prioritizing more commonly consumed products — Similac Advance and Similac Sensitive — to re-enter the marketplace sooner than other products. The representative reportedly told VDH that they expect for most products to be seen on grocery store shelves within a 10-week time period.

But on Monday, Abbott reached an agreement with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) that would allow the company to reopen its Strugis, Mich. facility. According to a release from Abbott, the consent decree with the FDA is subject to court approval.

“Our number one priority is getting infants and families the high-quality formulas they need, and this is a major step toward re-opening our Sturgis facility so we can ease the nationwide formula shortage. We look forward to working with the FDA to quickly and safely re-open the facility,” Abbott Chairman and CEO Robert B. Ford said. “We know millions of parents and caregivers depend on us and we’re deeply sorry that our voluntary recall worsened the nationwide formula shortage. We will work hard to re-earn the trust that moms, dads and caregivers have placed in our formulas for more than 50 years.”

Once the FDA confirms the initial requirements for start-up have been met, Abbott could restart the site within two weeks. The company would begin production of EleCare, Alimentum and metabolic formulas first and then begin production of Similac and other formulas. From the time Abbott restarts the site, it will reportedly take six to eight weeks before product is available on shelves.

“I want Richmond’s infant caregivers to know that help is on the way,” Stoney said. “We know that a formula shortage is an added stress to an already demanding job as a mother, as a father or as a caregiver. So I want you to know that the City of Richmond, this administration cares about you, that we love you and we’re going to do everything we can to help during this crisis.”