In response to COVID-19 and state and local reopening plans across the country, WIC state agencies have worked to support their local providers in making the most sensible localized choice for clinic operations. In March, the Families First Coronavirus Response Act provided the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) authority to issue a multitude of waivers around the WIC program in response to COVID-19. Some of these waivers included expanding WIC allowable foods and allowing remote service.
In early March, Governor Kate Brown of Oregon declared a state of emergency to address COVID-19. As the state was moving towards phasing in reopening, the Governor decided to pause and enforce greater preventive measures in response to increasing COVID-19 rates, including requiring face masks outdoors and prohibiting indoor gatherings over 10 people.
"If WIC clinics do reopen, the guidance issued by the Governor makes it easier for local providers to enforce and establish their conduct and policies for clinic reopenings," says Tiare Sanna, Oregon WIC director.
In Oregon, all local agencies are utilizing some type of remote service but have adapted operations based on local factors. Some clinics are completely remote with staff working from home, while others have some staff working, but practicing social distancing in the office. While staff in the office are only taking phone or virtual appointments, families are still allowed to come in to pick up things such as breast pumps. Although other clinics are fully operating remotely, local WIC staff have remained committed to ensuring WIC mothers’ and children’s needs are met. If a mother needs a breast pump, but her local clinic is closed, WIC staff will make arrangements to meet the family at the clinic to hand off a breast pump or other needed resource while still practicing social distancing guidance.
Oregon WIC has made it a priority to support local WIC providers through the pandemic. The state agency facilitates monthly calls to provide technical assistance and coordinated a listening session to hear concerns, successes, and challenges from local providers. Local WIC staff identified three primary concerns around reopening, including: physical safety from COVID and procurement of personal protective equipment; the lack of childcare for participants and staff especially with many school districts implementing remote learning; and the possibility of caseload decline if families have to come into the clinic due to fear of COVID exposure. The top opportunity to address these challenges that local providers identified to enhance safety and reduce fear was an extension of WIC waiver authority.
Ms. Sanna says that Oregon WIC will "support implementation of remote service in order to prevent undue risk to participants and staff, as long as waivers are granted." If waivers are not granted, the state will work within existing federal WIC guidelines to ensure the safety of WIC participants and staff.
With COVID relief package negotiations and the extension of WIC waiver authority looming as well as increasing data on the disproportional effect this pandemic has had on low-income communities and communities of color, Congress must include WIC waiver extensions in any relief package. Not only will waiver extensions provide program flexibilities, but they are an equity measure to prevent the exacerbation of health and economic disparities related to this pandemic. Local WIC providers in Oregon have raised the importance of ensuring that decision-making in WIC, especially from the state agency, be grounded in an equity framework.
Last week, more than 350 local WIC providers from all 50 states called on Congress to extend USDA’s waiver authority for WIC. Local WIC providers see the effect of this pandemic on families firsthand. WIC families’ and providers’ voices must be elevated in conversations around the future of WIC operations.