New data from a study by researchers at the University of Maryland shows the pandemic has led to increases in the number of women who die from complications following childbirth.
The researchers analyzed data from the National Center for Health Statistics on maternal mortality rates and found from March 2020, when the pandemic began, through December 2020, maternal deaths increased by 33% compared to the two years prior.
In communities of color, the rise was even more pronounced as maternal deaths among Black women increased by 40%, and maternal deaths among Hispanic women increased by 74%.
“We often see direct evidence that a pregnancy has worsened underlying depression or anxiety in a person that has a history of those,” said Dr. Bronwen Kahn, a Maternal Fetal Medicine Specialist at Presbyterian/St. Luke’s Medical Center in Denver, and the co-chair of Colorado’s Maternal Mortality Review Committee, a role which she performs in a voluntary capacity.
According to the National Institutes of Health, the leading cause of pregnancy-related deaths is suicide, and the second leading cause is accidental drug overdose, two areas exacerbated by pandemic-related stress.
Dr. Kahn points to systemic issues that have led to the marked increases in communities of color. In many cases, she says, Black and Brown women need to meet a higher threshold of complication to receive care and the care they do get can sometimes be incomplete as they receive prejudice from doctors and nurses.
There is also the direct effect that racism has on a woman’s body and how it increases levels of anxiety and depression, a process known as maternal weathering.
“You can ask any person of color about their experiences interacting with the health care system and other systems in general and they will have multiple examples for you about how they’re discouraged, disincentivized to seek the kinds of care that they need,” said Dr. Kahn. “There are usually, in each of these cases, several points at which things went wrong. So, there’s a sort of Swiss cheese model of holes lining up in exactly the wrong way in order for an individual woman or person to fall through those holes.”
Dr. Kahn says solutions are difficult to identify since they go beyond individual effects and occur on a more systemic level, but she says awareness is key as it allows conversations to occur that affect change.
“Usually, these cases are preventable on multiple levels, and we think of those levels sort of starting at the foundation from a systems level; a larger, broader health systems level,” she said.
Editor's note: this article has been updated to clarify that Dr. Kahn serves on Colorado's Mortality Review Committee on a volunteer basis.