Many of us are concerned for senior citizens, people with existing diseases or illnesses, and children — all who are significantly vulnerable to COVID-19. However, there’s another sector that also needs more attention during this pandemic: pregnant women.
For expectant mothers and their loved ones, the key to staying sane is to be as ready as possible for what lies ahead. This means planning what will happen when the baby comes. "In labor, you have to know that things can change at any moment — you have to be flexible,” Rina Ríos, a childbirth educator and doula trainer in New York City, said.
However, how could they ever plan or be prepared for a pandemic like this?
Strained Health Systems and Disruptions in Services
As a pregnant woman, 35-year-old Mariam feels that this is the wrong time to have a baby. Every day, she spends hours on social media trying to get answers on how to protect herself and her unborn baby. She worries that she may get infected with the virus when she goes to a healthcare facility or the market, or even just stays home. Just like most pregnant women nowadays, Mariam is confused by the overload of information about the spread of the coronavirus — accompanied by rumors that stoke fears and worsen her anxiety.
Recent statistics from UNICEF revealed that an estimated 116 million babies will be born under the shadow of the COVID-19 pandemic. India is expected to have the highest number of births in the nine months since the pandemic declaration with 20.1 million births. It is followed by China (13.5 million), Nigeria (6.4 million), Pakistan (5 million), and Indonesia (4 million). Experts said that the crisis might increase neonatal mortality rates.
Even countries with stable healthcare systems and economies are affected by this crisis. In the US, over 3.3 million babies are projected to be born between March 11 and December 16. In a statement, UNICEF acknowledged that new mothers and newborns will be greeted by harsh realities as health systems and medical supply chains are currently strained across the world. Some factors that contribute to this problem include health centers overwhelmed with response efforts; global containment measures such as lockdowns and curfews; a lack of sufficient skilled birth attendants as health workers, and supply and equipment shortages.
“Millions of mothers all over the world embarked on a journey of parenthood in the world as it was. They now must prepare to bring a life into the world as it has become – a world where expecting mothers are afraid to go to health centers for fear of getting infected, or missing out on emergency care due to strained health services and lockdowns. It is hard to imagine how much the coronavirus pandemic has recast motherhood,” Henrietta Fore, UNICEF Executive Director, said.
Are Pregnant Women Vulnerable to COVID-19?
Bearing a child is both exhausting and frightening. But all of these fears worsen as the COVID-19 pandemic continues to impact us. While concerns about the virus are valid and precautions should be taken, experts say that it’s important to manage these fears and ensure proper care.
A recent survey conducted by The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center confirmed that the COVID-19 pandemic has created additional fears about risks for both mom and baby. The findings revealed that nearly 80% of respondents would be concerned about themselves or an expectant mother in their life amid the current pandemic. About 51% of about 2,000 respondents would be concerned about sending their child to daycare or a babysitter and over 45% would be concerned about visiting public places while pregnant and after their baby is born.
However, many families nowadays are confused about which sources to trust and which to ignore. Dr. Jonathan Schaffir, OB/GYN at The Ohio State Wexner Medical Center, encourages pregnant women to trust websites that are reliable and that are supported by medical professionals. According to Science Daily, an American website that aggregates press releases and publishes lightly edited press releases about science, medical professionals are making sure that they are taking extra steps for the safety of their patients and staff.
"We've also taken a close look at limiting appointments and determining the minimum number of visits and tests that women need in pregnancy to ensure they and their babies are healthy and well cared for. So it's important for women to know that when we say you need to come into the office or the hospital, that really is the case,” Dr. Schaffir said.
Christina Han, a high-risk pregnancy specialist who teaches at the University of California, Los Angeles, said that there’s no evidence that pregnant women are any more susceptible to COVID than the average healthy adult is. However, this doesn’t mean that they should be complacent. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warns that contracting the coronavirus while pregnant could make a person vulnerable to severe respiratory problems such as pneumonia. This is based on long experience with other respiratory illnesses, including influenza and SARS.
According to Stat News, an American health-oriented news website, data from other coronaviruses suggest that pregnant women may face more severe disease, adverse obstetrical outcomes, and greater mortality from them. This is because pregnant women already have increased heart rates, diminished lung capacity, and what one doctor called “distracted immune systems,” medical professionals explained. Dr. Romeo Galang, an OB-GYN on the CDC’s COVID-19 emergency response team, said that there also may be a higher risk of miscarriage and premature delivery.
Marcelle Cedars, a reproductive endocrinologist at the University of California, San Francisco, said that the impacts on women who get sick early in pregnancy and their developing fetus are still not clear. “We have no data about this, because it’s a new virus and nobody who was in the first trimester when they got it has delivered yet,” she said.
According to Vox, a liberal-leaning American news and opinion website owned by Vox Media, many hospitals are making plans to ensure that healthy pregnant women are separated from ill pregnant women. Denise Jamieson, chair of the Department of Gynecology and Obstetrics at Emory University School of Medicine, said that most hospitals are following CDC guidelines to evaluate pregnant people for Covid-19 symptoms.
“I think pregnant women should be reassured that the health systems are taking these issues very seriously,” Jamieson said.