Getting answers to your questions about COVID-19, vaccines and pregnancy

Hospitals seeing more pregnant patients with COVID-19, cases more severe, Jacksonville OB says

Local hospitals urging pregnant women to get vaccinated amid rise in COVID-19 cases

As the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention urges all pregnant women to get the COVID-19 vaccine, obstetricians at Jacksonville hospitals say they, like the rest of the nation, are seeing an increase in pregnant patients being infected with coronavirus.

Around 105,000 pregnant U.S. women have been infected with COVID-19, and almost 18,000 have been hospitalized, according to the CDC. About one-fourth of those received intensive care and 124 died.

Local obstetrician-gynecologist Dr. Tiffany Wells of Baptist Health joins us to discuss the low vaccination rate among pregnant women and the illness risks they face.

Baptist Health OB/GYN Dr. Tiffany Wells said locally, she is seeing a noticeable increase in expectant mothers with COVID.

“I’ve had patients in the ICU and/or the other physicians have had them as well. And it’s just numbers that we weren’t seeing beforehand, so we’re definitely seeing an uptick, and we’re seeing more severity in our patients than we saw before,” Wells said.

RELATED: Jacksonville doctor urges mothers-to-be to get vaccinated for COVID

Expectant women run a higher risk of severe illness and pregnancy complications from the coronavirus, including perhaps miscarriages and stillbirths. But their vaccination rates are low, with only about 23% having received at least one dose, according to CDC data.

“The vaccines are safe and effective, and it has never been more urgent to increase vaccinations as we face the highly transmissible delta variant and see severe outcomes from COVID-19 among unvaccinated pregnant people,” CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky said in a statement.

The updated guidance comes after a CDC analysis of new safety data on 2,500 women showed no increased risks of miscarriage for those who received at least one dose of the Pfizer or Moderna vaccine before 20 weeks of pregnancy. The analysis found a miscarriage rate of around 13%, within the normal range.

The CDC’s advice echoes recent recommendations from top obstetrician groups. The agency had previously encouraged pregnant women to consider vaccination but had stopped short of a full recommendation. The new advice also applies to nursing mothers and women planning to get pregnant.

Wells echoed the encouragement, saying at this point there aren’t any known increased adverse events from the vaccine with pregnancy but that she’s seen severe complications for those who contract COVID-19.

“The patients that end up in ICU are often needing very high levels of oxygen,” she said. “We’re not able to send these patients home on oxygen like we can other patients, so their care is very different and sometimes more intense.”

And Wells said it’s not just the moms they’re worried about, of course.

“If the mom starts to fail, then we have to worry about baby, and sometimes we ended up with preterm deliveries as a result, which, of course, nobody wants to have to do that either, so we’re worried about both mom and baby in these situations,” Wells said.

Although pregnant women were not included in studies that led to authorization of COVID-19 vaccines, experts say real-world experience in tens of thousands of women shows that the shots are safe for them and that when given during pregnancy may offer some protection to newborns.

Pregnancy-related changes in body functions may explain why the virus can be dangerous for mothers-to-be. These include reduced lung capacity and adjustments in the disease-fighting immune system that protect and help the fetus grow.

The risks are disproportionately high for Black and Hispanic women, who are more likely to face health care and economic inequalities that increase their chances of getting sick.

Some studies suggest the virus can also increase the risks of preterm birth and stillbirth, and in rare cases, it appears to have passed from mother to fetus.

More questions answered

Wells took the time after her visit to The Morning Show to answer a few more questions that were submitted by our viewers.

One viewer said they think because they had COVID-19, their unborn child will have antibodies and that means they don’t need to get the vaccine while they’re pregnant. Could you share your thoughts on that?

While the baby may have received antibodies due to an actual infection with COVID, we still do not know how much protection that gives the baby or how long it lasts. Additionally, the mother is at risk of reinfection. A recent study found that those who did not receive the vaccine after a previous infection were twice as likely to be reinfected. Any infection of COVID during pregnancy puts the patient at risk of severe disease with possible effects on the baby including preterm delivery.

We had several viewers mention they got vaccinated in their second trimester. Is there a recommendation on when in a woman’s pregnancy is the best time to get vaccinated?

At this time there is no recommendation for the timing of the vaccine in pregnancy, any trimester is considered safe. As soon as possible would be best for mom and baby to reduce the risk of infection and severe disease.

From another viewer: I can appreciate the CDC guidance, but what does the FDA say? And remember these vaccines are all approved under an emergency approval and what true long-term data (years) are they using??

While the current vaccine is indeed approved for use with Emergency Authorization, we expect full approval from the FDA within the month. In addition, pregnant patients have been added to the trials as well as outcomes studied in the vaccine databases which have not shown an increase in adverse events. Complications from vaccines, if they exist, would be expected in the short term, rather than the long term because they are cleared rapidly by the body and what remains is an immune system ready to fight that illness. Research will continue, but at this point with tens of thousands of pregnant people studied, there has not been any increased risk in pregnancy.

About the Authors:

A Jacksonville native and proud University of North Florida alum, Francine Frazier has been with News4Jax since 2014 after spending nine years at The Florida Times-Union.