We have three children, and with each pregnancy, life was pretty similar. My wife, Mel, ordered the same prenatal vitamins, and she spent time with her sister and mother, chatting about how things were going. She went to work until a week or so before the pregnancy. She went on walks, and went to the store. She interacted with people. We went to prenatal appointments together. We had well-attended baby showers. And then, after the delivery, a steady and supportive stream of friends and family visited to see the new baby. Usually my mother-in-law stayed with us for a couple weeks to help with this or that, as Mel recovered. It was a pretty standard narrative that I think most who have had a baby can relate to.
However, with COVID-19, pregnant women are seeing that narrative changed dramatically. According to a recent NPR story on pregnancy during COVID-19, some women are expected to visit with their OBGYN alone. And while that might not seem like a huge change to some women, it can be a serious hardship for those in their first pregnancy, or for those who have small children who need to be cared for while they visit with their doctor.
And as for visits after the delivery, well that’s complicated as well. Parents of newborn are being advised to limit visitors during the pandemic. New mom Carissa Helmer tells NPR that she’s asking visitors to quarantined for 14 days before visiting her baby. And frankly, I can only imagine how difficult that would be to explain to my own mother-in-law, or any mother-in-law for that matter.
However, these precautions — no matter how anxiety-inducing or inconvenient — are put into place for a reason. In June, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention published a study showing pregnant women may be more likely to develop a severe case of COVID-19. This finding was in comparison to non-pregnant women who also became infected. The study also showed that pregnant women who are Hispanic or Black may be at higher risk of infection than white pregnant women. (Black and Hispanic people in the U.S. have been found to be at greater risk of contracting the coronavirus and at higher risk of death from COVID-19 overall.) To make matters worse, the CDC study found that of the 91,000 U.S. women of reproductive age that participated, out of those who tested positive, the pregnant women were more likely to need a ventilator to recover.
Then there is the difficult story of physicians in France who published a case study which strongly suggests a newborn caught the coronavirus before birth from his mother.
Naturally, it is best to take into account that like everything related to COVID-19, the CDC findings are preliminary. All of this is new, because the virus is new, and what we know today could change tomorrow. Plus, when you really look at the numbers in this study, the answer is yes, pregnant women who contacted COVID-19 were more likely to need a ventilator. However, the number of pregnant women who actually needed a ventilator was very small: 42 women out of 8,207, which ends up being half of 1%.
But the reality is, COVID-19 is a real threat to pregnant women, and contracting COVID-19 while pregnant is no joke. Pregnant women are already advised to avoid things like soft cheeses and sushi and scooping cat poop because of the risk of listeria and toxoplasmosis, so just add coronavirus to the list of potential health threats to manage.
Does all this mean that if you’re pregnant, you should never leave the house? Well … for many people that isn’t possible. Essential workers need to leave; not everyone has the luxury of working from home. Not all OBGYN appointments can be done online, so naturally the pregnant person will need to meet with their doctor. And getting out for something as simple as a good walk can be critical to some expecting mothers’ physical and mental health.
Dr. Laura Riley, an OB-GYN at New York-Presbyterian Hospital, told NPR that, “…what I tell my patients is you just need to remain diligent in terms of all those things that we know work. We know social distancing works. We know that wearing a mask works. We know that washing your hands frequently works, and limiting contact with other individuals as much as practicable.” However, according to Riley, “Where it can get harder for her patients is that, to keep the mother-to-be protected, partners and other members of the household need to take those same precautions. That may not be so easy, but it’s absolutely critical.”
What this all boils down to is that if you are pregnant in the middle of a pandemic, be sure to follow safety guidelines to limit the possibility of infection, and insist that the people around you do the same. Ask your doctor a lot of questions, get tested where possible, and above all, do what you can to control your environment in the name of safety.