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Two studies reveal new risks for COVID-19 and pregnancy

Last week, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) announced the results of two new studies related to COVID-19 and women who are pregnant.

At the Children’s Wisconsin Fetal Concerns Center, we work closely with women every day who are experiencing a high-risk pregnancy. This team, in conjunction with the experts at the Children’s Wisconsin level IV NICU, is uniquely trained to care for babies with complex medical needs. It’s what we do. But we understand expecting mothers may be concerned by this news, so I wanted to offer some insight and guidance about these new findings.

The first study consisted of 409,462 women between the ages of 15 and 44 with COVID-19 — 23,434 of whom were pregnant. The pregnant women, the study found, were at higher risk for more severe symptoms than the women who were not pregnant. 

“Intensive care unit admission, invasive ventilation, extracorporeal membrane oxygenation, and death were more likely in pregnant women than in non-pregnant women,” the study said. 

The second study concluded that pregnant women with COVID-19 were at higher risk to deliver prematurely. Out of 3,912 pregnant women with COVID-19, 12.9 percent delivered prematurely, compared to 10.2 percent for the general population in 2019. Most of these were in the last preterm period (34-37 weeks). Additionally, of those 3,912 newborns, 610 were tested for COVID-19 and 2.6 percent were positive. Of those babies who tested positive, most occurred when the mother became infected within a week of delivery. 

What does this all mean?

To start, I just want to emphasize that the overall risk for severe symptoms in otherwise healthy women in that age range remains very low, pregnant or not. I cannot stress that strongly enough. That’s been true from the beginning and remains true. 

It’s also worth noting that these findings are consistent with what we know about how other respiratory infections, such as the flu, can affect pregnant women. That’s why doctors strongly recommend all women who are pregnant get their flu shot.

That all said, this research is helpful in reinforcing the importance of the many safety precautions medical professionals have been recommending for months. 

If you do end up delivering early — we define full-term as 40 weeks and consider anything earlier than 37 weeks premature — rest assured that our ability to care for premature babies has made remarkable advancements in recent years. About 11 percent of all births in the United States are pre-term and survival rates for all degrees of prematurity (even micro preemies born before 24 weeks) have increased over the last couple of decades. By the time a baby reaches 28 weeks, their survival rate is as high as 90 percent. 

Since the lungs are the last thing to develop during pregnancy, many premature babies will need to spend some time in a NICU hooked up to a ventilator to help them breathe while their lungs finish developing. Many will also need some help feeding and growing. We understand how scary a premature delivery can be for a family, but take comfort in the fact the Children's Wisconsin’s NICU is nationally recognized for its safety, quality and outcomes. It is a one of the top destinations for the care of newborns and fetuses with complex medical and surgical needs, before or after birth. 

What should I do if I’m pregnant?

If you are pregnant and have any concerns, whether it’s related to COVID-19 or anything else, the first step is always to talk to your doctor. Your OB-GYN knows you and your medical history best and can work with you to make the best decisions for your health and the health of your baby. 

Every pregnancy carries some level of risk and this is just another risk to be mindful of. Just as doctors recommend pregnant women not eat soft cheeses or raw fish, they need to also be more mindful of COVID-19 precautions. You’ve heard it countless times, but wearing a mask, practicing social distancing and isolating yourself if you experience symptoms are the best ways to keep yourself safe and stop the spread of COVID-19. If you are experiencing any COVID-19 symptoms, be sure to let your OB-GYN know and get tested. If you end up testing positive as you near your time of delivery, again, consult with your OB-GYN. All hospitals have precautions and restrictions in place in order to keep you and your baby safe. 

For women in our Fetal Concerns Center whose baby has been diagnosed with a medical condition, we’d recommend extra vigilance. We understand everyone’s situation is different and while the overall risk is low, it only takes a few simple safety precautions to reduce the risk of infection even further. 

Above all, the CDC concluded that pregnant women “should be counseled” about their risk for severe COVID-19 symptoms. And that’s what we as medical professionals — whether your OB-GYN or us at the Fetal Concerns Center — are here for.