CHICAGO, IL — Doctors and public health officials are sounding the alarm about a significant increase in pregnant people getting infected with COVID. The latest omicron-driven surge is having a huge impact on patients and their health care providers.
The warning comes as new data emphasizes the increased risk of severe complications for unvaccinated pregnant people and their infants.
As a clinical coordinator in women’s health, Alyssa Thiess spent much of her time over the last two years working with COVID patients.
“On an average day, we can have anywhere from two to three that could be COVID-positive,” she said.
Pregnant with her first child and having underlying asthma, she masked attentively and made sure she was fully vaccinated and boosted.
But as the omicron surge was taking hold just before Christmas Thiess got infected.
“I definitely had that kind of sheer panic. Like, ‘OK, I'm sick,’” she said. “’How can I make sure I get through this and make sure I get my child through this?’”
There is reason for concern.
Last week, a population-wide study published out of Scotland reported that premature births, stillbirths, and newborn deaths are more common among those who get COVID 28 days or less before their delivery date.
At Prentice Women’s Hospital in Chicago, 13,000 babies are born each year, making it one of the largest birthing centers in the country. Here, coronavirus cases among pregnant women are spiking.
“Now more than ever, we are seeing a surge in pregnant and birthing persons who are positive for COVID-19, more so than any time during this pandemic,” said Dr. Melissa Simon, a Northwestern Medicine obstetrician/gynecologist at Prentice.
She says that while they had been using a separate floor for COVID-positive expectant mothers, they no longer do.
"No, there's just too many. It's 1 in 4 to 1 in 5 patients are COVID positive right now, and we just don't have enough rooms for that,” she said.
That means each patient must be treated as if they are COVID-positive. Each time a nurse enters a room, they must put on a new set of personal protective equipment.
“We're seeing staffing shortages across the nation, not just around here, across the city,” said Simon. “Many staff are getting COVID. They're also tired and burned out.”
According to the CDC, as of January 8, just over 42% of pregnant people aged 18 to 49 were fully vaccinated before or during their pregnancy compared with 67% of the general population over the age of 5. For pregnant people who are Black, the figure falls to only 26%.
The message from physicians and public health agencies for pregnant people is clear.
“Right now, it's so important to get boosted or to get the vaccine if you haven’t,” said Simon. “It is completely safe in pregnancy. It's completely safe in lactation, and it will help mitigate your chances of getting hospitalized or admitted to the intensive care unit with potentially terrible outcomes for you and your baby.”
Alyssa Thiess who is 38 weeks pregnant says her bout with COVID included congestion, a bad cough and extreme fatigue, but she credits the vaccine for getting her through it without severe complications.
“Had I not been vaccinated, I could have been in an ICU. I could have been ventilated,” she said. “That’s what sits in the back of my head. It could have been much worse.”