A recent story in The Washington Post reported on the more than 700 women who’d tested positive for the novel coronavirus and given birth at the BYL Nair Charity Hospital in Mumbai, India. The hospital is a part of a group called PregCovid, which collects data regarding pregnancy and COVID-19.
Here in the United States, health departments reporting cases of COVID-19 during pregnancy to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention can provide additional information to help us understand its effects during this critical period in a woman’s – and her child’s – life. Yet despite the growing pool of data about the coronavirus, our understanding of the effects of COVID-19 on pregnant women remains limited, which is troubling given that many states are struggling with the pandemic and the high stakes involved for mothers.
While researchers continue to collect and interpret available data, it is important that pregnant women be especially vigilant to protect themselves and their babies, including by – at minimum – taking basic precautions such as practicing social distancing and wearing masks.
As an infectious disease physician who recently gave birth to my new daughter, being pregnant during the coronavirus pandemic posed significant challenges both physically and intellectually. In my field, we practice evidence-based medicine, but with the novel coronavirus, we continue to learn more each day and to update our recommendations based on new information. For now, the evidence indicates that the best tools to help contain the spread of COVID-19 are social distancing and mask-wearing.
As states have opened up and restrictions have been relaxed, however, people may believe that the risks posed by the coronavirus are diminished and go about their lives without taking these precautions. Doing so may be particularly dangerous for pregnant women: Data published in a CDC report just this week found that expectant mothers with symptomatic COVID-19 were more likely than other infected women to end up in the ICU, to require invasive ventilation and to die.
In addition, the coronavirus may cause poor pregnancy outcomes such as preterm birth. While the CDC may update its information as more becomes available, these possibilities are concerning.
Meanwhile, one of the growing hopes to prevent the coronavirus’ spread is a vaccine. Yet the release of one may not be a panacea for pregnant women, who have been excluded from clinical trials. Given this, it will take some time before we understand if these vaccines are safe for mothers and their babies, so pregnant women may be advised against getting a vaccine should one otherwise become available.
Expectant mothers who previously had COVID-19 also aren’t necessarily in the clear, as the current science is still evolving regarding immunity from COVID-19 once a person has recovered from the disease. Though rare, there have been cases of people reportedly becoming reinfected, and even a recent reported case of someone who died after reinfection.
Given the potential risk associated with the virus, some health care professionals have separated moms from their newborns due to a confirmed or suspected case of COVID-19. This separation may be distressing for moms – especially first-time parents who want to bond with their newborns – and may have negative effects on the baby as well. Notably, as evidence from the pandemic has grown, the American Academy of Pediatrics changed its initial guidance that recommended temporary separation of newborns from infected mothers.
Pregnant women should consult with their medical providers about these issues – yet all pregnant women also should take recommended precautions to minimize the chances of infection in the first place. According to the CDC, these include avoiding those who aren’t wearing masks outside of your immediate household and limiting close contact with others.
A pandemic is a particularly challenging time to be pregnant, especially given the unknowns surrounding the effects of COVID-19. But pregnant women should not live in fear; instead, this is an opportunity that can empower them to take charge of their health and to protect their unborn babies.