What Pregnant People Need to Know About Coronavirus
The coronavirus (COVID-19) has caused widespread panic since it began spreading across the world. But while the disease has caused over 57 million illnesses in the U.S. alone, researchers are still studying exactly how COVID-19 impacts pregnant women or fetuses. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), pregnant women might be at a higher risk for severe illness, hospitalization, and intensive care unit (ICU) admission. Experts are finding evidence that the coronavirus might pass from Mother to Baby through the placenta. Preterm birth has also been reported for pregnant women who tested positive for COVID-19.
Thankfully, though, it appears that most newborns with COVID-19 recover without any complications—and evidence suggests that breast milk from an infected mom doesn't carry the virus. Read on for more information about COVID-19 and pregnancy, with tips for preventing the fast-spreading respiratory illness.
Coronavirus and Pregnancy
It's natural for pregnant women to worry about COVID-19. After all, they have a higher risk of contracting viral illnesses due to changes in physiology and immune systems, according to Jessica Madden, M.D., medical director of Aeroflow Breastpumps. "For example, women who get influenza while pregnant are at a higher risk of developing pneumonia than women who aren't pregnant," she says. Viral illnesses like the flu are associated with an increased risk for miscarriages, birth defects, low birth weight, and other pregnancy complications.
Preliminary research suggests that COVID-19 follows this same trend. While studying coronavirus cases from January 22–June 7, 2020, the CDC found that pregnant women were "significantly more likely to be admitted to the intensive care unit (ICU) and receive mechanical ventilation" from COVID-19.
According to Justin Brandt, M.D., an assistant professor of obstetrics and gynecology in the Division of Maternal-Fetal Medicine at Rutgers Robert Wood Medical School in New Jersey, "women with COVID-19 might also be at greater risk for pregnancy complications" such as miscarriage, preterm birth, and fetal growth restriction if they have COVID-19.
Keep in mind that the coronavirus tends to affect older people and those with preexisting conditions more severely, according to the CDC. It makes sense, then, that those with "high-risk" pregnancies have increased odds, suggests Dr. Madden. This includes women with preeclampsia, gestational diabetes, and other complications.
Does COVID-19 Affect the Fetus?
In July 2020, doctors in France recorded COVID-19 transmission from a mother to a baby in the womb. The newborn experienced neurological symptoms, brain swelling, irritability, and body rigidity, according to The New York Times. He recovered without any complications within three weeks.
Other studies have also shown that transmission through the placenta (intrauterine vertical transmission) might be possible—although it appears to be a rare event. The good news is that most babies with the coronavirus have mild symptoms and recover without complications—although a few newborns suffered severe illness or death.
Some pregnant women with the coronavirus experienced pregnancy loss, stillbirth, and miscarriage. According to a November 2020 CDC report, pregnant women may be at a higher risk of giving birth prematurely. Among 3,912 babies born to COVID-19 positive women, 12.9 percent were born before 37 weeks—higher than the national estimate of 10.2 percent.
A study published in Lancet Regional Health — Americas also supports this claim. Researchers examined women who delivered babies in California from July 2020 to January 2021. They found that those diagnosed with COVID-19 (as documented on the birth certificate) had a 60 percent increase in very preterm birth occurring before 32 weeks gestation. They also had a 40 percent increase in preterm birth (between 32 and 37 weeks) and a 10 percent increase in early term birth (between 37 and 38 weeks). Pregnant people with co-morbidities—like high blood pressure, obesity, and diabetes—had an even greater risk of preterm birth after COVID-19 infection.
When it comes to breastfeeding after baby comes, evidence suggests that mothers with COVID-19 are not likely to spread the virus through their breast milk. The CDC just recommends wearing a mask and washing your hands before nursing if you do have COVID-19.
How to Prevent COVID-19 Transmission
If you're pregnant or a new parent, avoid crowded indoor spaces and don't interact with anyone who's had potential exposure. What's more, "basic practices encouraged for protection against any respiratory infection remain valid," says Charles Bailey, M.D., medical director for infection prevention at St. Joseph Hospital in Orange County, California. "Stay home if you're ill (and encourage others to do the same), cover your cough or sneeze, use disposable tissues and throw them away immediately after use, and get a flu shot." The CDC also recommends the use of face masks in public settings where social distancing might be difficult, especially for unvaccinated people.
Dr. Bailey suggests frequently washing your hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds. The CDC says hand sanitizer with at least 60 percent alcohol also works in a pinch. Washing your hands is especially important before eating or touching your face.
Finally, get the COVID-19 vaccine when it becomes available to you. Experts and medical organizations—including the CDC, American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG), American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), American College of Nurse-Midwives, and more—recommend getting vaccinated while pregnant.
I’m Pregnant and Think I Have the Coronavirus—Now What?
If you're showing symptoms of the coronavirus (cough, fever, shortness of breath), consult your obstetrician or physician right away. Respiratory symptoms should be taken seriously, since they may have negative consequences for the pregnancy.
If you are diagnosed with the coronavirus, your health care provider will decide on a course of treatment. "It's also important for pregnant women with coronavirus to plan for a hospital birth due to their risk of developing complications from the virus (like pneumonia)," says Dr. Madden. She adds that newborns should also be closely monitored for the development of viral symptoms after birth.