Health Dept. acquires traveling clinics to resume WIC services in earthquake-hit towns

By Pedro Correa Henry

Twitter: @PCorreaHenry

Special to The Star

In order to reopen the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) clinics after the earthquakes that shook the south of Puerto Rico close to a year ago derailed their operations, the island Health Department announced Tuesday that two traveling clinics have been acquired to temporarily replace the clinics.

Puerto Rico District WIC Program Director Jeanette Canino said the traveling clinics were acquired after reviewing the barriers to the program’s ability to provide access and “guarantee our pregnant [women], infants and children’s health, which results in prevention and fewer health conditions in the midst of a pandemic like COVID-19.”

Canino said one of the clinics will travel to southern municipalities including Guánica, Yauco and Guayanilla as services in those towns had to be transferred to others such as Peñuelas and Ponce due to the tremors that began last December.

“We wanted to improve access to [WIC Program] services; therefore, the federal government awarded us with around $600,000 to acquire these mobile units,” Canino said.

She said the two units “should help us, through a well developed work plan, to move to places where there is opportunity within the community.” She noted that the number of WIC Program members has dropped due to fewer births and outmigration.

“We will develop community alliances and agreements with agencies such as the Department of Education, Department of Agriculture, Department of Housing, where we get the chance to have contact with prospective participants,” Canino said.

She said the traveling clinics, which are adjusted to federal requirements from the support program, include areas for anthropometric measurement, breastfeeding, food demonstration, a participant evaluation space, a bathroom and a television “to offer education on nutrition in an attractive manner and to capture children’s attention while they wait their turn.”

Due to hurricanes Irma and Maria, the local WIC Program was allocated $6 million in federal disaster relief funds to recover clinics and trucks that were damaged by the destructive storms, Canino said.

“One of the most affected clinics was the one in Caguas, and we used part of the funds to restructure the clinic and its concept, as this is a satellite clinic because it moves around mostly to look out for and provide help to both participants and candidates,” Canino said, adding that the clinic located in Villa Blanca is open on Saturday until 8 p.m. so “working mothers won’t have to lose a work day to receive the program’s services.”

Meanwhile, Canino said there is $183 million in allocated funds -- “which is divided between administrative affairs and food” -- for the coming year’s term.

As for the funds that have been lost during the past five years due to a great reduction in participation, Canino said the WIC program lost around $28 million last year.

“In 2012, we had over 194,000 participants, now, we have 103,000 participants,” she said, noting that funds allocation depends on the number of program members.

The Star asked what other initiatives the WIC Program will use apart from the traveling clinics, given that 57 percent of children in Puerto Rico live in poverty. Canino said they were reinforcing their communication networks as the federal government has permitted the program to work remotely.

“As we are working remotely, now we can call possible participants and keep our current members informed; meanwhile, as participants have been able to receive their checks by mail, it has helped us to expand our program,” she said, adding that they have enrolled more than 3,000 new members during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Canino added that in 2022, WIC Program members will be able to receive their funds through an electronic benefit transfer card.

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