By Dena Vang
Pregnancy and childbirth are among life’s most cherished moments. While many women hope for a healthy pregnancy and delivery, complications tend to arise, especially among Black women. Prior to the pandemic, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found that Black women were three times more likely than Hispanic women and 2.5 times more likely than white women to die from causes related to pregnancy. COVID-19 has only further amplified the disparities and challenges that Black women face, including implicit racism within the health care system and socioeconomic factors that impact their ability to access care.
A recent KFF survey and research analysis found that compared to other racial and ethnic groups, 41% of Black women say they will “wait and see” how the vaccine is working for others before getting vaccinated themselves. The survey also reported that one in five Black women say they “definitely will not” get vaccinated for COVID-19.
Many Black organizations have been addressing hesitancy and concerns regarding the COVID-19 vaccines to ensure that all Black Americans have the most accurate information to make an informed decision. One organization that is keeping Black communities up-to-date about the pandemic and COVID-19 vaccines is the Black Coalition Against COVID-19 (BCAC). The BCAC has hosted several Facebook Live events to help Black Americans make informed decisions about COVID-19. During the “Making It Plain: Black Women and COVID-19: The Virus, the Variants, and the Vaccines” Town Hall Meeting, Dr. Valerie Montgomery-Rice, president of the Morehouse School of Medicine, and Dr. Melissa Clarke, expert in population health and co-founder of BCAC, shared insights on a range of women’s health topics, including pregnancy.
“The absolute risk for severe COVID-19 is lower for younger women of childbearing age,” Clarke said. “But know that pregnancy itself is a risk factor for having severe COVID illness, possibly ending up in the ICU and even possibly dying. The risk, of course, is not just to the mom; it’s also to the baby. A woman with severe COVID symptoms has a higher chance of having a preterm birth, uncontrolled high blood pressure and bleeding around the time of birth. Just as with the general population, African American women who are pregnant have disproportionately higher rates of COVID-19 infection and death. That’s important to remember.”
Initially, there was limited data on whether the COVID-19 vaccines were safe and effective during pregnancy, but new research shows encouraging evidence that the COVID-19 vaccines offer strong immune protection for women who are pregnant. A recent study published by The American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology found that the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines are safe and effective in pregnant and lactating women. These women can also pass down antibodies to their newborns.
The study involved 131 participants whose blood samples were taken at the time of the first and second doses of the vaccine and again after six weeks. The data showed that the level of antibodies for participants in response to the vaccine were higher than those in participants who were sick with COVID-19 during pregnancy. Antibodies were also found in umbilical cord blood and breast milk.
As vaccine eligibility for mothers-to-be opens up across the United States, pregnant women are facing an important decision about vaccinating for two. Both Clarke and Montgomery-Rice are encouraging pregnant women to protect themselves and their newborns by getting vaccinated.
“When we have compared the risk of COVID in pregnant women to age-matched non-pregnant women, we see those that are pregnant are having a higher risk of ending up in ICU and ending up on a ventilator,” Montgomery-Rice stated. “That is concerning to us. We know that if a woman is a diabetic, or obese and pregnant, she also has a higher risk of ending up needing mechanical ventilation. We need pregnant women to not get COVID. The only way we know you can do that, of course, with all the preventative health measures, washing your hands, watching your distance, and wear your mask, but also taking the vaccine.”
The CDC recommends the following measures to stay healthy during pregnancy:
• Keep all your health care appointments during and after pregnancy. Visit with your health care provider for all recommended appointments. If you’re concerned about going to your appointments because of COVID-19, ask your health care provider what steps they are taking to separate healthy patients from those who might be sick, or ask about telemedicine options. If you need help finding a health care provider, contact your nearest hospital, clinic, community health center, or health department.
• Talk to your health care provider about how to stay healthy and take care of yourself and your baby.
• Ask questions you have about the best place to deliver your baby. Delivering your baby is always safest under the care of trained health care professionals.
• You should also talk to your health care provider if you think you are experiencing depression during or after pregnancy.
• Get recommended vaccines during pregnancy. These vaccines can help protect you and your baby.
• Get a flu vaccine every year. Others living in your household should also get vaccinated to protect themselves and you.
• Get the whooping cough (Tdap) vaccine during pregnancy to protect your baby against whooping cough, which can have similar symptoms to COVID-19. The CDC recommends that all women receive a Tdap vaccine during each pregnancy.
• Consider getting a COVID-19 vaccine when it is available to you. Talk with your health care provider if you have questions.
• Call your health care provider if you have any concerns about your pregnancy or if you get sick or think you may have COVID-19.
• Do not delay getting emergency care because of COVID-19. Emergency departments have steps in place to protect you from getting COVID-19 if you need care. If you need emergency help, call 911 right away. Tell them that you are pregnant and are having an emergency.
• Seek medical care immediately if you experience any urgent maternal warning signs and symptoms. These symptoms could indicate a potentially life-threatening complication.
“All women have concerns about going into their doctor’s office and potentially exposing themselves to COVID,” Clarke said. “I want to assure everyone that the protocols that are in the doctor’s office are designed to protect you. If you’re masking, distancing, washing your hands and following the protocols in the doctor’s office, it’s important to make sure that you stay on course for your prenatal visits.”
For more information about COVID-19 and upcoming events, visit Black Coalition Against COVID-19, a key health resource for African Americans.
BlackDoctor.org, the world’s largest and most comprehensive online health resource, is specifically targeted to African Americans.
For more information about COVID-19 news, head to the CDC website at cdc.gov/coronavirus.