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Life has largely gone back to normal in the three years since the COVID-19 pandemic began. Social distancing is no longer a thing, and most people don’t wear masks even in crowded indoor settings. While the pandemic seems to be in the rearview mirror, experts say there’s at least one population that needs to be mindful of their COVID risk: pregnant women.
The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists is warning about the risks of COVID for pregnant women, noting that “pregnant and postpartum women have a higher risk for more severe illness from COVID-19 than non-pregnant women.” The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also states that “if you are pregnant or were recently pregnant, you are more likely to get very sick from COVID-19 compared to people who are not pregnant.”
But most of the world has moved on from the pandemic, which raises a big question: How concerned should pregnant women be about this? Experts say they should at least be aware there’s a risk.
“Pregnant women still need to have COVID-19 on their radars,” women’s health specialist Dr. Jennifer Wider tells Yahoo Life. “Pregnancy causes changes in the body that can make a person more vulnerable to respiratory viruses, and pregnant women have a higher chance of severe disease that can put the mom and developing baby at risk.”
Dr. Thomas Russo, a specialist in infectious diseases at the University at Buffalo in New York, agrees: “We have less COVID now, but it remains a more lethal disease than influenza, particularly in high-risk groups. Pregnant women fall into that category. The data strongly shows that pregnant women are at-risk for more severe disease and serious outcomes for their babies.”
It’s entirely possible to get COVID-19 while you’re pregnant and be just fine, Dr. William Schaffner, a professor at the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine, tells Yahoo Life. “But it can also lead to serious complications, including premature delivery,” he says.
But why is COVID so dangerous for expectant moms? Here’s what you need to know.
The research findings are startling
Early in the pandemic, there wasn’t much data to suggest that pregnant women fared any worse than other people who got COVID-19. A lot has changed since then.
A BMJ Global Health study of more than 13,000 pregnant women in 12 countries found that about 3% of expectant mothers with COVID needed to be in the ICU and about 4% needed any kind of critical care. Compared to pregnant people who weren’t infected with the virus, those who contracted COVID were nearly four times more likely to be admitted to an ICU. They were also 15 times more likely to be ventilated and were seven times more likely to die.
A study of 240,147 people published in the Lancet Regional Health — Americas linked a COVID infection during pregnancy to preterm birth. Researchers found that the risk of very preterm birth, which happens before 32 weeks of pregnancy, was 60% greater for people who had the virus at some point in their pregnancy. The risk of having a baby before 37 weeks was 40% higher for those who had been infected.
COVID also raises the risk of stillbirth, according to a 2021 CDC study of more than 1.2 million hospital deliveries. While the overall risk of stillbirth was low, researchers found that 1.25% of births in which the mother had COVID-19 were stillborn, compared to 0.64% of women who didn’t have the virus.
The impact on infants can last beyond the potential complications of premature birth: Research published in the Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism in March showed that 149 babies who were exposed to COVID-19 in utero and 127 who were not found that those born to moms who had COVID had a higher risk of developing obesity, diabetes and cardiovascular disease.
How to protect yourself
“It’s important that pregnant women be protected against COVID, in part to protect themselves, but also to protect their baby,” Schaffner says.
That means doing what you can to lower your risk of getting COVID, including getting the COVID-19 vaccine if you haven’t already, he says. (It’s worth noting that both the CDC and the ACOG recommend that expectant mothers be vaccinated against the virus.)
“We have the tools to minimize the consequences of COVID,” Russo says. “They’re being under-utilized.”
Schaffner also recommends wearing a mask in crowded indoor situations. “Put that mask on if you’re going inside to do group activities, religious services, going to the supermarket … certainly if you’re traveling,” he says.
If you happen to contract COVID during pregnancy, Russo recommends consulting your doctor.