TORONTO — Following the news that pregnant women are increasingly ending up in ICUs with severe COVID-19, the Society of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists of Canada (SOGC) is calling on the government to prioritize this group for vaccines immediately.
“According to SOGC members, there is currently a wave of daily pregnant women coming into Ontario ICUs, many requiring ventilators,” SOGC said in a statement Thursday.
“These women are getting extremely sick, very quickly.”
They called for women who are over 20 weeks pregnant to be prioritized at once to receive the vaccine.
Some provinces do currently include pregnant people in their priorities, but in other jurisdictions, they are not mentioned in the plan itself, and would presumably receive the vaccine only when they were eligible through other factors, such as age.
For instance, Ontario lists those who are pregnant as “at risk” and prioritizes them in the current phase of the vaccine rollout, and pregnant people became eligible for the vaccine in Alberta on March 30. But in British Columbia, only pregnant people with a heart condition are considered clinically vulnerable enough to receive prioritization in their current phase. And in hard-hit Quebec, the vaccine guidelines still place pregnant women with children, saying vaccine rollout in these populations “will be determined based on future studies.”
The SOGC’s statement follows a CTV News report of a 33-year-old woman who had to have an emergency C-section after she ended up hospitalized with COVID-19 only a few weeks before her due date.
Following this story, other families have contacted CTV News detailing similar experiences, including the mother-in-law of another 33-year-old woman who is in a Toronto ICU now — and on a ventilator.
Her family has no idea how the young woman became infected. She had been off on maternity leave since early March, her mother-in-law said.
She asked that the woman’s name be kept anonymous.
“She wasn’t going anywhere,” the mother-in-law told CTV News, adding that the family had held its Christmas get-together over Zoom. “Her big excursion was to get mail […] and to [attend] her regular medical appointments.”
The family doesn’t know if it is a variant that infected the woman or not. Doctors have theorized that with the variants circulating, it is easier for pregnant women to contract the virus than before.
A week ago, she developed a fever and went to get tested for COVID-19. A couple days later, public health called to say she was positive, and to stay home and isolate.
But by that evening, she couldn’t take a deep breath. She was taken to hospital, where her oxygen levels were very low, and was put on 100 per cent oxygen.
Her husband was also found to be positive for COVID-19.
As she worsened, doctors performed an emergency C-section on Monday. Her baby boy was born healthy, but his mother’s condition worsened.
Doctors contemplated putting her on ECMO — a specialized life support — because her lungs were failing. But she is now responding to therapy, says her mother-in-law.
“She’s now at 50 per cent [oxygen], which they tell my son […] is a good sign,” the mother-in-law said.
Like many other pregnant women who have fallen severely ill with COVID-19 as of late, she has no underlying health issues. No diabetes, no blood pressure. This is her first child.
“So many people say it’s not real, it’s not serious,” her mother-in-law said. “Within hours, everything change[d]. People have to take this seriously.”
Although this woman’s baby was born safely, that may not be the case for everyone who contracts COVID-19 during pregnancy.
SOGC explained that pregnant women seem to be “more likely to develop respiratory complications requiring intensive care than women who aren’t pregnant.
“Providing ventilator support in pregnancy is more challenging, and the risks are greater to both mother and child,” the statement said. “Pregnant women with COVID-19 are more likely to have a premature birth and caesarean delivery, and their babies are more likely to be admitted to a neonatal unit.”
And doctors point out that even pregnant women who do not fall ill with COVID-19 may be experiencing increased stress due to stories of women in their situation suffering in the ICU — something that is known to be detrimental to their health.
“In a year where pregnant people and new parents have suffered a high emotional burden already due to the pandemic, this news is particularly stressful and anxiety-provoking,” Dr. Ariel K. Dalfen, head of the Perinatal Mental Health Program at Mount Sinai Hospital in Toronto, told CTV News.
“I worry about people at this vulnerable life stage having so much stress and anxiety.”
She pointed out that stress and the fear of contracting COVID-19 may prevent pregnant people from receiving their regular prenatal health care.
“I worry that pregnant people who have obstetrical concerns will not seek in-person help for their physical issues because they are afraid to go out and attend doctors appointments or go to the hospital,” Dalfen said.
She said it’s essential that pregnant women receive their regular care and attend appointments and reach out for help if they need it, “and not be limited by worries about getting COVID.”
SOCG emphasized as well in their statement that while pregnant women should take care to limit contact with others and always wear a mask in public, they should focus on their own health and should not “hesitate to contact your health care providers if you have any concerns about your physical and mental health.”
Although it can be anxiety-inducing to hear news of other pregnant women suffering with severe COVID-19, Dalfen said it is still “important for women and families to know about this.
“They should also register to get the vaccine,” she added, “which is helpful to limit their chances of getting very sick, of […] dying, and appears safe in pregnancy.”
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