CDC: Pregnant women have a higher risk of complications and death from COVID-19

Korin Miller
·5 min read

For months, pregnant women have been told that they may have an increased risk of complications from COVID-19. Now the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has made the wording more definite.

“Based on what we know at this time, pregnant people are at an increased risk for severe illness from COVID-19 compared to non-pregnant people,” the CDC’s website reads. (As recently as earlier this week, guidance from the CDC said that pregnant women “might be” at an increased risk of complications.)

What prompted the change? A new report from CDC researchers. The report analyzed data from 400,000 women between the ages of 15 and 44 who had a symptomatic case of COVID-19. The researchers found that admission into the intensive care unit, “invasive ventilation,” use of a heart-lung machine and death were more likely in pregnant women than in nonpregnant women.

"Pregnant people are at an increased risk for severe illness from COVID-19 compared to non-pregnant people,” the CDC’s website reads. (Photo: Getty Images)
"Pregnant people are at an increased risk for severe illness from COVID-19 compared to non-pregnant people,” the CDC’s website reads. (Photo: Getty Images)

The increase in risk was significant. When researchers adjusted for outside factors, they determined that 10.5 per 1,000 pregnant women were admitted to the ICU, compared with 3.9 per 1,000 nonpregnant women. Pregnant women were also three times more likely to need invasive ventilation than those who weren’t pregnant.

Based on the findings, the CDC recommends that pregnant women “be counseled about the risk for severe COVID-19-associated illness including death.”

A separate study published by the CDC analyzed 3,912 infants who were born to women infected with SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. The researchers found that 12.9 percent of those babies were born preterm — that is, before 37 weeks. That’s higher than the national estimate of 10.2 percent, the CDC points out. “It is important that providers counsel pregnant women on measures to prevent SARS-CoV-2 infection,” the report concludes.

While the findings are scary, doctors say they’re not surprised

“The data on hospitalization has been emerging for some time,” Dr. Amesh A. Adalja, senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, tells Yahoo Life.

But why can pregnancy increase a woman’s risk of complications from COVID-19? “Pregnancy induces changes in respiratory physiology and translates to lower thresholds for needed medical attention,” Adalja says. Pregnancy also dampens a woman’s immune system function, “which can leave pregnant women more vulnerable to all sorts of infections, including COVID-19,” women’s health expert Dr. Jennifer Wider tells Yahoo Life.

Pregnant women have a decreased lung capacity as well, putting them at greater risk of severe complications from a respiratory illness, Dr. Michael Cackovic, a maternal-fetal medicine physician at the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center, tells Yahoo Life. That’s partly “why we think influenza affects pregnancy women more severely,” he says.

As for the preterm births, the specific reasoning behind this is unclear. However, it may have something to do with the bodily inflammation that COVID-19 can cause, Dr. Christine Greves, a board-certified ob-gyn at the Winnie Palmer Hospital for Women and Babies, tells Yahoo Life. “In general, preterm delivery has been associated with inflammation,” she says.

What can pregnant women do to stay safe?

The CDC specifically recommends that pregnant women do the following:

  • Limit interactions with people who might have been exposed to or infected with COVID-19, including people within your household, as much as possible.

  • When going out or interacting with others outside your immediate household:

    • Wear a mask, especially when other social distancing measures are difficult to maintain.

    • Avoid others who are not wearing masks or ask others around you to wear a mask, if possible.

    • Stay at least 6 feet away from people outside your household.

    • Wash your hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds. And, if soap and water are not available, use a hand sanitizer with at least 60 percent alcohol.

  • Avoid doing activities where taking protective measures may be difficult and where social distancing can’t be maintained.

“Pregnant women should be especially careful to avoid becoming infected,” Dr. Richard Watkins, an infectious disease physician in Akron, Ohio, and a professor of medicine at the Northeast Ohio Medical University, tells Yahoo Life. That includes avoiding traditional pregnancy milestones like having a traditional baby shower, he says. “In-person baby showers should not happen under current circumstances,” Watkins says. “I’ve had patients who have had drive-by or Zoom baby showers,” Greves says. “That’s a safer choice. There are plenty of asymptomatic carriers out there.”

Pregnant women should also urge their family members to be diligent about practicing known methods of preventing the spread of COVID-19, like social distancing, wearing masks and washing their hands regularly, Cackovic says.

Wider urges expectant families to take this information seriously. “Pregnant women and their families need to pay close attention to this study and strictly follow the recommended preventative safety protocols,” she says.

For the latest coronavirus news and updates, follow along at https://news.yahoo.com/coronavirus. According to experts, people over 60 and those who are immunocompromised continue to be the most at risk. If you have questions, please reference the CDC’s and WHO’s resource guides.

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