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Why pregnant people were left behind while vaccines moved at ‘warp speed’ to help the masses


Kia Slade was 7 months pregnant, unvaccinated, and fighting for breath, her oxygen levels plummeting, when her son came into the world last May.

A severe case of COVID-19 pneumonia had left Ms. Slade delirious. When the intensive care team tried to place an oxygen mask on her face, she snatched it away, she recalled. Her baby’s heart rate began to drop.

Ms. Slade’s doctor performed an emergency cesarean section at her bedside in the intensive care unit, delivering baby Tristan 10 weeks early. He weighed just 2 pounds, 14 ounces, about half the size of small full-term baby.

But Ms. Slade wouldn’t meet him until July. She was on a ventilator in a medically-induced coma for 8 weeks, and she developed a serious infection and blood clot while unconscious. It was only after a perilous 2½ months in the hospital, during which her heart stopped twice, that Ms. Slade was vaccinated against COVID-19.

“I wish I had gotten the vaccine earlier,” said Ms. Slade, 42, who remains too sick to return to work as a special education teacher in Baltimore. Doctors “kept pushing me to get vaccinated, but there just wasn’t enough information out there for me to do it.”

A year ago, there was little to no vaccine safety data for pregnant people like Ms. Slade, because they had been excluded from clinical trials run by Pfizer, Moderna, and other vaccine makers.

Lacking data, health experts were unsure and divided about how to advise expectant parents. Although U.S. health officials permitted pregnant people to be vaccinated, the World Health Organization in January 2021 actually discouraged them from doing so; it later reversed that recommendation.

The uncertainty led many women to delay vaccination, and only about two-thirds of the pregnant people who have been tracked by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention were fully vaccinated as of Feb. 5, 2022, leaving many expectant moms at a high risk of infection and life-threatening complications.

More than 29,000 pregnant people have been hospitalized with COVID-19 and 274 have died, according to the CDC.

“There were surely women who were hospitalized because there wasn’t information available to them,” said Paul A. Offit, MD, director of the Vaccine Education Center at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia.

Vaccine developers say that pregnant people – who have special health needs and risks – were excluded from clinical trials to protect them from potential side effects of novel technologies, including the Pfizer and Moderna mRNA vaccines and formulations made with cold viruses, such as the Johnson & Johnson vaccine.

But a KHN analysis also shows that pregnant people were left behind because including them in vaccine studies would have complicated and potentially delayed the delivery of COVID-19 vaccines to the broader population.

A growing number of women’s health researchers and advocates say that excluding pregnant people – and the months-long delay in recommending that they be immunized – helped fuel widespread vaccine hesitancy in this vulnerable group.

“Women and their unborn fetuses are dying of COVID infection,” said Jane Van Dis, MD, an ob.gyn. at the University of Rochester (N.Y.) Medical Center who has treated many patients like Ms. Slade. “Our failure as a society to vaccinate women in pregnancy will be remembered by the children and families who lost their mothers to this disease.”


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