WECHU's Healthy Family unit, breastfeeding programs significantly impacted due to COVID-19

·4 min read
Nicole Dupuis, CEO of the Windsor-Essex County Health Unit, says the Healthy Families Unit has been impacted during the pandemic and staff have been redeployed to other areas.  (Jennifer La Grassa/CBC - image credit)
Nicole Dupuis, CEO of the Windsor-Essex County Health Unit, says the Healthy Families Unit has been impacted during the pandemic and staff have been redeployed to other areas. (Jennifer La Grassa/CBC - image credit)

Limited resources during the pandemic have forced the Windsor-Essex County Health Unit to offer less supports for new moms and families over the past two years.

Redeploying staff to fight off COVID-19, whether it be for case and contact management or mass vaccination clinics, has meant pulling resources from other programs the Windsor-Essex County Health Unit (WECHU) offers. And according to WECHU CEO Nicole Dupuis, one area that has gone through significant "ebbs and flows" has been the Healthy Families Unit.

According to the health unit's website, the department offers the Healthy Babies Healthy Children and Reproductive and Early Child Health programs, which support women during the pre-natal stages and as their child grows.

They also have a Child Health team that offers services including breastfeeding support, developmental and nutritional screening clinics and parenting workshops.

Before COVID-19, the unit had 40 staff members, Dupuis told CBC News in an interview.

But at one point during the pandemic, she said it dropped to as low as four staff members as nurses were pulled to fill other duties.

"Anecdotally, we certainly know the parents we are connecting with and able to talk to are dealing with ... bigger concerns certainly and a lot more vulnerability than they were prior to the pandemic," she said.

"[Staff in the unit were] trying to just really answer calls from parents and new mothers, certainly expecting parents ... and try to navigate them to the right information."

Dupuis said they've slowly been trying to build back the unit's capacity.

"When it became online we were not really getting 100 per cent of it." - New mom Meetty Abraham

With it's breastfeeding programs, Dupuis said they preserved what they could, but still the health unit went from having three lactation consultants to one. Despite seeing breastfeeding as a "really important need" in the community, Dupuis said they aren't delivering that service in the "scope that we once did."

She added that outreach and education were really scaled back and breastfeeding clinics haven't been taking place.

When pandemic measures eased, Dupuis said they did schedule one-on-one consultations with moms.

Submitted by Meetty Abraham
Submitted by Meetty Abraham

'We need ... their help'

Dupuis said they won't truly know the impact the loss of these services has had until the pandemic is under control, but new mom Meetty Abraham experienced it firsthand.

Abraham became a first-time mom days before the pandemic hit in March 2020. As a recent immigrant, Abraham said she doesn't have any family nearby and knew she would need support.

She enrolled in WECHU's Healthy Babies Healthy Children program, but dropped out after a year. Abraham said she only got one in-person meeting through the program before it became completely virtual.

"It's a really awesome program, but when it became online we were not really getting 100 per cent of it," she said, adding virtual communication was difficult.

"People are still delivering their babies, we need ... their help, their support. I think they should revisit these [programs] and they should take corrective actions to have enough number of people to support us."

Due to COVID-19, Abraham said the social worker she had through the program kept changing and that made it difficult for one person to know her child's history.

Parents left behind in vulnerable time

Labour Doula Kathy Herbertson has operated Prana Birth Services in Windsor since 2015. She said supports for moms, specifically around breastfeeding, have always been difficult to find in Windsor, but the pandemic has only made it worse.

"I think we're really leaving new families in a bit of a predicament and feeling very isolated on more than one level," Herbertson.

Jennifer La Grassa/CBC
Jennifer La Grassa/CBC

She added that while many services shifted to online, it has made them less personal and more difficult to offer hands-on support.

"It's such a vulnerable time and we're kind of not giving new parents the support they need to get off to a really good start," she said of the shift in the health unit's resources.

"When moms and babies and families are feeling supported from the get-go through these vulnerable times there's a much greater success rate at breastfeeding 6 months and a year and just feeling more cohesive as a family."

She said there are other resources new moms can access including lactation counsellors or the Midwifery Collective of Essex County.

In addition to WECHU shifting their operations, Dupuis said they also saw less clients being referred to them through hospitals and physicians. She said this could likely be because partner organizations were impacted by COVID-19 or families were choosing not to reach out, with the unknown of the pandemic.

Another program that WECHU was scheduled to launch right before the pandemic was called Legacy for Children. Dupuis said it's geared to help vulnerable moms in the community.

Now, two years later, Dupuis said they are looking to revisit it and aim to get it out this spring.

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