COVID-19 significantly raises risk to pregnant women and their babies, studies find

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Pregnant women and their babies are at increased risk of severe outcomes from COVID-19, including death and stillbirths, according to new research published Friday by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

A study analyzing data from the Mississippi State Department of Health found that the rate of death among pregnant women infected with COVID was more than three times higher than non-pregnant women of reproductive age. The COVID death rate during pregnancy grew five-fold once the Delta variant became prevalent, compared to the earlier phase of the pandemic. 

During the study period, from March 2020 through October 6, 2021, 15 pregnant women in the state died after testing positive for coronavirus. The researchers said none were fully vaccinated. 

The risks of the virus were even higher for Black women during pregnancy. The study found Black pregnant women with COVID were more than three times as likely to die compared to Hispanic and White counterparts. 

The Delta variant also led to a striking increase in the risk of stillbirth among pregnant women with COVID-19. Before the variant was widely circulating, pregnant women with COVID-19 had a 47% increase in the risk of stillbirth compared to women who weren’t infected. After Delta began widely circulating, the increased risk jumped to 304%. 

In another study, which has yet to be peer-reviewed, scientists found that pregnant women infected with COVID when the Delta variant was prevalent were more than three times as likely to be admitted to the ICU compared to non-pregnant women of reproductive age. 

The studies’ findings are a sobering reminder of the increased risks that pregnant women face if they contract the virus, and health officials say it further underscores the urgency of increasing vaccinations among them. 

Only 35.3% of pregnant people in the U.S. have been fully vaccinated prior to or during pregnancy, according to CDC data — half the rate of the overall adult population. The rate is even lower among those who are Hispanic/Latino or Black. 

In an earlier statement to CBS News, Dr. Dana Meaney-Delman, lead of the maternal immunization team for COVID-19 Response, said the agency was “deeply concerned” about the low vaccination rate among women of color, saying it “leaves far too many pregnant people at risk of severe illness, adverse pregnancy and neonatal outcomes, and death from COVID-19.” 

Researchers assessing the data out of Mississippi noted that “partnerships to address vaccine access, hesitancy, or other concerns” could help reduce the inequities. 

Dr. Torri Metz, associate professor and vice chair of research of obstetrics and gynecology at the University of Utah, says these findings — particularly the evidence that COVID increases the risk of stillbirth — could serve as a motivating factor for women to get vaccinated. 

“I think that these data that say we have an increased risk of stillbirth really hammers home that it’s not just the mother who’s at risk of COVID, it’s also the fetus and pushing that messaging out may really help people decide to go ahead and vaccinate,” she said. 

Additional research on the impacts of COVID is underway, including one study funded by NIH and led in part by Dr. Metz that will assess the impact of long COVID symptoms on pregnant people and their babies. Enrollment for that trial is set to begin in early December. 

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