During the first 18 months of the pandemic, the risk of stillbirth nearly doubled for those who had COVID-19 during pregnancy compared with those who didn’t. And during the spread of the delta variant, that risk was four times higher.
In today’s immersive investigation, ProPublica’s Duaa Eldeib reports on the devastating toll COVID-19 had on pregnant people and their babies. A lack of testing data, government guidance and misinformation led many to avoid the COVID-19 vaccine during pregnancy, unwittingly increasing their chances of a stillbirth. Read more: COVID-Related Stillbirths Didn’t Have to Happen — ProPublica
COVID-19 also led to stillbirths among pregnant people who became exceedingly ill after contracting the virus. It damaged their lungs and clotted their blood, putting their babies in such severe distress that they were born before they could take their first breath. Doctors discovered what they are calling SARS-CoV-2 placentitis, a condition in which the virus attacks the placenta and cuts off oxygen to the fetus.
Among other key findings:
- Pharmaceutical companies and government officials failed to ensure the inclusion of pregnant people in the development of the COVID-19 vaccine. Excluding pregnant people from the initial clinical trials also omitted them from the data on the vaccine’s safety, which created a vacuum where disinformation spread. Unsure about how getting the shots might affect their pregnancy — and without clear guidance at the time from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — pregnant people last year had some of the lowest vaccination rates among adults.
- Researchers have yet to determine exactly why some pregnant people with COVID-19, vaccinated and unvaccinated alike, deliver stillborn babies, while others do not. Attempts to answer that question have been hindered, in part, by incomplete data. The CDC’s statistics on COVID-19-related fetal and maternal deaths are undercounts. The CDC has data on less than 73,000 birth outcomes following a mother’s confirmed COVID-19 diagnosis in 2020 and 2021, of which 579 were pregnancy losses.
- Even now, with numerous studies unequivocally announcing the safety of the vaccine for pregnant people, some doctors have failed to communicate the dangers of COVID-19 to pregnant people or the vaccine’s role in mitigating it.
- While 71% of pregnant people were fully vaccinated as of mid-July, a figure not much lower than national vaccination rates for people 18 or older, only around 2% received at least one of their shots while they were pregnant — suggesting that persuading people who are already pregnant to get vaccinated remains a challenge.
While the height of SARS-CoV-2 placentitis came and went with the delta variant, doctors warn, the virus continues to mutate and the risk of stillbirths remains.
“Maybe we’re out of the woods with this, but we just don’t know,” said a pathologist at the Cleveland Clinic. “There’s nothing more tragic than seeing a healthy pregnancy end because of something that’s potentially preventable.”
This is the first story in a series that will examine the stillbirth crisis, which has simmered silently in the U.S., claiming the lives of nearly 23,000 babies every year. Of those 23,000 annual stillbirth deaths, an estimated 25% are believed to be preventable. Much more in the full story: COVID-Related Stillbirths Didn’t Have to Happen — ProPublica
We wanted to bring this article to your attention.
Reporter Duaa Eldeib can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Associate Director Communications, Local Initiatives
Quickening is the official member publication and digital news site for the American College of Nurse-Midwives. Content is written by and for ACNM members and staff.