Public Health Nutrition Editorial Highlight: ‘Superstorm Sandy’s impact on the provision of WIC (Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children) services in New York State’ Authors: Michelle Wemette, Asante Shipp Hilts, Stephanie R Mack, Yunshu Li, Millicent Eidson, Loretta A Santilli, Trang Nguyen and Guthrie S Birkhead discuss their research below.

The Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) supports the provision of nutritional services to low-income, nutritionally at-risk populations. Provision of these services in New York State (NYS) was interrupted in the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy (Sandy) in 2012. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recognizes that pregnant women and infants face specific health challenges because of disaster events, and evidence suggests that experiencing such events can have adverse health consequences on this population. However, the impact of weather-related disasters on WIC has not been well researched.

We used a mixed-methods approach to explore the impact of Sandy on WIC providers in New York City and three NYS counties that were heavily affected by the storm. Feedback was collected from staff at these locations through a focus group (n=12) and telephone interviews (n=6) conducted in 2014 and an online survey (n=24) administered in 2015. Qualitative data was analyzed by coding transcribed text into key words and identifying major and minor themes for strengths, challenges, or recommendations using eleven Public Health Preparedness Capabilities developed by the CDC and six other preparedness capabilities defined for the purposes of this study. Survey responses were quantitatively analyzed, and challenges reported on the survey were classified by preparedness capability.

For the focus group and interview, a major preparedness capability theme related to strengths of the WIC program’s preparedness and response was ‘emergency operations coordination.’ “Environmental health protection’ against environmental hazards and ‘flexibility’ of rules and procedures were major preparedness capability themes related to challenges and recommendations, respectively. In the survey, ‘information sharing’ was a major capability theme for challenges. Most WIC staff (66.6%) reported that their programs were at least somewhat prepared for future weather-related disasters on the survey. However, only 16.7% of survey respondents reported having practiced a work-related emergency response plan since Sandy. Staff who indicated practicing an emergency response plan at their WIC site were more likely to indicate they, as an employee, were prepared for future weather-related disasters (P < 0.05).

The WIC program’s resiliency during emergency events could be strengthened through more comprehensive emergency planning. Essential data, e.g. client information, could be securely stored on multiple devices. Secondary storage options include USB drives or equipment at off-site locations. WIC staff could also identify temporary WIC sites to be used if current sites becomes unusable. Clients could then be notified of these temporary sites. Primary and alternative contact information should be collected from clients to ensure maintenance of client communication. In addition to the former recommendations, WIC-specific emergency training and preparedness efforts could focus on improving interagency communication and resource sharing.

WIC provides vital services to a very large and vulnerable population. The results of this study can be used to enhance the program’s resiliency in the future. Both the results of this study and its mixed-methods approach are likely applicable to a variety of other public health services. We hope that this information can be used to optimize human health in the face of adversity.

The full article ‘Superstorm Sandy’s impact on the provision of WIC (Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children) services in New York State’ published in Public Health Nutrition is available to download for free until 4th May 2018.

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