The overall risk to pregnant women remains small because they tend to be younger and healthy, according to the report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Out of 19,600 pregnant women studied, 33 died — a 0.2 percent death rate. For women who are not pregnant, the death rate was 0.1 percent, the report said.
The CDC study also reinforced findings about the disparate path of the pandemic in the United States, with Black, Hispanic and Asian women at greater peril from the virus.
The increased risk to pregnant women should serve as a warning to those who are expecting a baby to be especially vigilant against infection, experts said.
“Some people think that because if you’re young and healthy, you’ll be okay, and pandemic fatigue is setting in. But the fact is at my practice, we’ve seen women who are pregnant on ventilators. It affects the mother, the delivery and the baby,” said David Jaspan, chair of the obstetrics and gynecology department at the Einstein Healthcare Network in Philadelphia, who was not involved in the study.
“We have no predictive ability how this will impact you, so the best advice we can offer is prevention,” Jaspan said. “Wear a mask. Social distance. Stay away from people who may be infected.”
Some pregnant women may not be getting diagnosed until later in their illness because the virus shares some common symptoms with pregnancy — fatigue, nausea and vomiting.
“We want patients to not make the assumption that what they’re feeling is just from pregnancy. Keep up your appointments,” Jaspan said. “Give us a chance to evaluate and ensure you’re okay.”
The report draws on data the CDC collected from hospitals throughout the country. It found that 1.1 percent of pregnant women were admitted to an ICU after being diagnosed with covid-19, the disease caused by the virus, compared with 0.4 percent of women who were not pregnant. The rate requiring ventilation was 0.3 percent for pregnant women and 0.1 percent for other women.
Researchers believe the increased risk may be attributable to physiological changes that occur with pregnancy, such as increased heart rate and oxygen consumption, decreased lung capacity and shifts in the body’s immune system.
While Black women made up only 14 percent of those included in the study, they represented 37 percent of deaths recorded. Pregnant Asian women also saw a disproportionate risk of severe illness. Hispanic women had a higher risk of being infected and a higher risk of dying than White women.
The CDC also released data Monday showing that pregnant women infected with the virus were more likely to have preterm births. Among 3,912 births, 12.9 percent were preterm, compared with 10.2 percent among the general U.S. population in 2019.
Taken together, the findings could have implications for whether pregnant women are given a vaccine when one becomes widely available, said Denise Jamieson, chair of the gynecology and obstetrics department at Emory University. Any decision on a vaccine would have to take into account safety concerns for the fetus and mother.
“But given what this shows about the increased risk experienced by pregnant women, it suggests you may not want to deny them the chance to be vaccinated,” Jamieson said.
Many pregnant women are already taking robust measures to try to avoid getting infected, Jamieson said. But she and other doctors say they have seen an extraordinary number testing positive — but without having symptoms.
“I’ve had patients who quit their jobs to better quarantine themselves, but their partner still has to work outside the home to earn a wage. It just shows how difficult it is to protect yourself from this virus,” she said. “But as this data shows, it’s more important than ever that they protect themselves from getting covid.”