Editor’s Note: Kristina Box, MD, FACOG, is state health commissioner for Indiana. Denise Jamieson, MD, MPH, is chair of the Department of Gynecology and Obstetrics at Emory University School of Medicine and chief of gynecology and obstetrics for Emory Healthcare. Judy Monroe, MD, is president and CEO of the CDC Foundation and former state health commissioner for Indiana. The views expressed in this commentary belong to the authors. View more opinion at CNN.
Data released this week by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) show there have been more than 128,000 confirmed Covid-19 cases among people who are pregnant, including more than 22,000 hospitalizations and 180 deaths since the pandemic began. Among these, there were 22 deaths in August alone.
To some, 180 deaths may not seem all that significant compared to the more than 700,000 people in the United States who have died since the pandemic began, but each life lost to Covid-19 is tragic. As physicians, we can also tell you 180 deaths in those who are pregnant in a little over a year and a half from one disease is truly alarming, especially since there are typically around 700 maternal deaths each year in the United States.
Today, we know those who are pregnant are at an increased risk for severe illness and death from Covid-19 and pregnant people with Covid-19 have an increased risk for preterm birth and other poor pregnancy outcomes.
Given these risks, it’s disconcerting that, as of late September, only 31% of pregnant people have been vaccinated against Covid-19, according to CDC data. Rates are even lower among those who are Hispanic (25%) and Black (15.6%).
How did we end up in such a discouraging state?
At the beginning of the pandemic, we had limited information about the effects of Covid-19 on pregnancy. There was also initially limited data about the safety of the vaccines in pregnancy. But the science has rapidly evolved: pregnancy causes changes in the body that could make it easier to get very sick from respiratory viruses like Covid-19, and the changes can continue after pregnancy.
Meanwhile, accumulating data from vaccine safety monitoring systems have not identified any issues for pregnant people or their babies. In August, CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky said the agency “encourages all pregnant people or people who are thinking about becoming pregnant and those breastfeeding to get vaccinated.”
Despite this guidance, however, there has been a troubling spread of online misinformation about the vaccine that stokes fears of infertility and other side effects.
These persistent myths have sadly dissuaded many – including pregnant people – from receiving the shot. The CDC recently responded by issuing an urgent alert to accelerate vaccinations for people who are pregnant, were recently pregnant, trying to get pregnant, or who might become pregnant in the future.
We can all play a role in helping prevent additional and unnecessary maternal deaths from Covid-19. Public health leaders should continue to work with organizations and communities to make the shots more accessible and encourage pregnant persons to get them.
Our healthcare providers, doctors and nurses also have a critical role to play when it comes to asking pregnant patients about their vaccination status and addressing any fears or doubts they might have.
Polling from The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research shows patients trust their doctors to do what is right for them and their families, thus, doctors are ideally positioned to communicate accurate information about the dangers of Covid-19, emphasize the safety and effectiveness of the vaccines, and confront misinformation with evidence-based messaging.
As physicians, we agree getting vaccinated provides pregnant persons a safer and much better alternative to the risk of hospitalization and death from Covid-19.
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As individuals, we can all start meaningful conversations with the people in our lives about the importance of getting vaccinated. One of our daughters received the Covid-19 vaccine during the second trimester of her pregnancy and is grateful for the protection it afforded her. She recently delivered her first child and wants pregnant people to have the same protection she received from the vaccine.
The future is in our hands; we should do everything we can to prevent needless illness and death and provide a safe start for pregnant people and their children.