Pregnant women across the world are concerned about the coronavirus pandemic, but Black women, already three times more likely to die in childbirth, have even more reason to panic.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 42.8 African Americans die for every 100,000 live births. With more than 3,000 in the U.S. now dead from COVID-19, the respiratory disease caused by the novel coronavirus, and more than 350,000 confirmed cases, this nightmare could extend past thousands of due dates.
“This whole coronavirus stuff gives me crazy anxiety, but the safest place for my baby right now is in my womb,” said Irene Issacs, a first-time expectant mother in Prince George’s County. “I’m just hoping this will all be over by the time I give birth in July.”
In a report by the World Health Organization, “China Joint Mission on Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19),” 147 pregnant women contracted the virus, 8% of whom had severe symptoms and 1% who were in critical condition.
Experts say those numbers will grow because the United States has not yet reached the peak contraction growth rate.
Due to changes in procedures, many women are recommended to visit their doctors less often than they normally would in an effort to increase social distancing and hopefully lower risks of contracting or spreading COVID-19.
“I am 18 weeks pregnant and extremely high-risk,” said Deyanta Washington, another expectant mother. “I had my first son at 23 weeks and went into labor at 22 weeks but I have yet to have an ultrasound due to the coronavirus. I am nervous and scared.”
According to the CDC, pregnant women experience immunologic and physiologic changes which might make them more susceptible to viral respiratory infections, including COVID-19.
The researchers don’t have much concrete date on COVID-19 but they do know that fevers in the early stages of pregnancy are associated with birth defects and some developmental conditions. Some viruses can have devastating consequences for the fetus, such as Zika, which can lead to an unusually small head, and Ebola, which can be fatal.
Infectious respiratory illness, including pneumonia and tuberculosis, are generally managed in pregnancy with antibiotics, although special attention may be needed for antibiotic choices.
“Pregnancy overall is uncertain, so this added layer of stress does cause some anxiety,” said Sharelle Guyton, who along with husband Kevin are expecting their second son soon. “This is our second child so we’ve been through the process, but this time around it’s more nerve-wracking to have the worries of being exposed.”
Pre-screening for COVID-19 in pregnant women before scheduled doctor’s appointments is recommended to encourage isolation of infected individuals.
Other recommended precautions for pregnant women include obtaining copies of their health records in advance to have a record of their prenatal care, preparing for the worst-case scenarios such as their partner not being in the delivery room, making sure a birth plan is written for their medical professional, and considering a C-section to prevent fetal contact to the virus.
“I would be mortified if my husband can not be in the delivery room with me,” Issacs said.
The CDC recommends that infected pregnant women who give birth be separated from their newborns until they are no longer infectious, but that doesn’t mean that they will not be caring for their child.
“Newborns stay in isolation with Mom if the mom is stable enough to care for baby and baby is term/stable/not requiring NICU care,” said labor and delivery nurse Ashley Rose. “Mom is required to wear a mask and is taught good hand-washing. Breastfeeding is allowed. This is the recommendation by the World Health Organization.”
Breastfeeding is one of the many ways that a mother can care and protect their infants from many illnesses. Very rarely is it recommended to stop breastfeeding a newborn, especially during a pandemic where formula can be scarce and less effective in building immunity.
“I plan to breastfeed for bonding and to help build immunity for the baby,” Guyton said. “It just feels so strange and uncertain. I’m doing my best to stay positive by minimizing negative media.”
Outside of the immediate postpartum setting, CDC recommends that a mother with influenza continue breastfeeding or feeding expressed breast milk to her infant while taking precautions to avoid spreading the virus to her infant.
Breastfeeding is no easy feat, as many women struggle to get the skill down pat. Several organizations such as the Developing Families Center in northeast D.C. offer classes to help teach mothers latching techniques, though some have been forced to offer virtual sessions only amid the coronavirus pandemic.
“We offer continuous, uninterrupted care for women and their families during the most important childbearing and early child-rearing years,” said Zenash Tameret of the Developing Families Center. “Unfortunately our programs are shut down due to COVID-19.”
To find a virtual breastfeeding class, go to multicare.org/pregnancy-breastfeeding-support.