An increasing number of people who are unvaccinated and pregnant are being hospitalized for COVID-19, report investigators who saw hospital admissions double in a single year.
“With the surge, we had expected to begin treating patients who developed severe or critical illness again in pregnancy,” says Emily Adhikari, MD, from the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas. “But we did not expect the level of respiratory illness that we began to see in our patients. That was a surprise and an alarming finding that we felt was really important to get out there.”
The researchers followed more than 1,500 pregnant women diagnosed with COVID-19 who received care from Parkland Health and Hospital System in Dallas County, one of the nation’s busiest for deliveries. After the emergence of the Delta variant, the number of pregnant women hospitalized with COVID-19 more than doubled over the previous year.
And 82 pregnant women went on to develop severe or critical COVID, they report in their study, published online in the American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology. All but 1 of these patients were unvaccinated, 10 needed a ventilator, and two died.
The proportion of cases that were critical was about 5% in 2020. However, in April 2021, even though the number of total cases remained low, the number of severe illnesses started to rise. After the Delta variant became dominant, both the number and severity of cases increased, and after August 2021, more than 25% of pregnant people diagnosed with COVID-19 required hospitalization.
“We need to focus and really act urgently to recommend vaccination in pregnancy because that is the primary prevention tool that we have,” says Dr. Adhikari. “We do not have a proven cure for this illness, and that is important to know.”
These findings, which focus on a vulnerable population, are especially important given the elevated prevalence of COVID-19 in pregnant people of lower economic status, said Lissette Tanner, MD, MPH, from Emory University in Atlanta, who was not involved with the study.
“There are higher rates of hospitalization and death among Black, Hispanic, and Native American communities,” she reported. “It is essential to know how the virus is affecting those most affected and often most disadvantaged to deal with the pandemic.”
Vaccination rates are low in this population; just 19.2% of pregnant women receive at least one dose during pregnancy, according to the CDC. But pregnancy confers a higher risk for severe COVID-19 illness and for adverse outcomes, such as preterm birth and stillbirth.
Of the 665 people in the study cohort who were pregnant or had given birth when the vaccines were available, only 21.4% received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine.
Given the increased risk for COVID-19 during pregnancy, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, the Society for Maternal-Fetal Medicine, and the CDC recommend vaccination for people who are pregnant, breastfeeding, or trying to get pregnant.
According to ACOG, pregnant women who are fully vaccinated can follow the same guidelines as everyone else who is fully vaccinated; however, to prevent breakthrough infections, they might want to continue wearing a mask. ACOG also recommends that those not fully vaccinated follow physical-distancing guidelines and limit contact with people as much as possible to avoid infection.
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