Some regions have already reported a rebound from the COVID-19 fertility trough. Molly J. Stout, MD, director of maternal fetal medicine at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, and colleagues used electronic medical records to predict a surge in births after the initial decline.
“The surge we’ve seen at the end of this summer is exceeding the usual annual birth rate, as predicted,” she said in an interview. “But I think there’ll be a return to normal after this transient escalation. I don’t think birth rates will stay elevated above the normal because the birth surge is a temporary response to an event, although there will likely be regional differences.”
Looking ahead, Dr. Stout, who was not involved in Dr. Aassve’s analysis, is not certain how a fourth pandemic wave might ultimately modify a couple’s overall family size. But the toll the health crisis has taken on working women who have been forced to withdraw from the economy because of a lack of childcare points to a societal need that should be addressed.
According to Philip N. Cohen, PhD, a professor of sociology at the University of Maryland, College Park, who’s been tracking fertility trends since the onset of the COVID-19 emergency, the pandemic has combined a health crisis with an economic crisis, along with “the additional factor of social distancing and isolation, which all contributed to the decline in birth rates. Some people changed their plans to hold off on having children, while others didn’t get pregnant because they weren’t socializing and meeting people as much.”
Dr. Cohen, who was not involved in the study by Dr. Aassve and associates, said his provisional data show that although in many places, birth rates have rebounded more or less to prepandemic levels after a nadir around Jan. 2021, some areas of the United States still show substantially lower rates, including California, Hawaii, and Oregon.
As to the duration of the pandemic effect, Dr. Aassve cautions that his group’s estimates refer to the first wave only. “We then have the second, third, and currently the fourth wave. We can’t be sure about the impact of these waves on fertility since the data are not there yet, but I’d be surprised if they didn’t continue to have an impact on fertility rates,” he said.
Dr. Cohen agreed: “Some people who delayed childbearing will make up the delay. However, whenever there’s a delay, there’s inevitably some portion of the decline that’s not recouped.”
As for the wider effect across the world, Dr. Aassve said his team’s figures derive from high-income countries where data are readily available. For middle- and low-income countries, fewer data exist, and the quality of those data is not as good.
The lessons from this and other upheavals teach us that unforeseen shocks almost always have a negative impact on fertility, says Dr. Aassve. “[B]ut these effects may be separate from existing declining trends. The issue here is that those overall declining trends may be driven by other factors. In contrast, the shock of the pandemic is short-lived, and we may return to normal rather quickly. But if the pandemic also impacts other societal structures, such as the occupational and industrial sectors, then the pandemic might exacerbate the negative trend.”
The study was supported by funding from the European Research Council for funding under the European Union’s Horizon 2020 Research and Innovation Programme. The study authors, Dr. Stout, and Dr. Cohen have disclosed no relevant financial relationships.
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