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In-Depth: What we know about COVID and pregnancy after two years

San Diego researchers help find answers
Posted at 6:33 AM, Mar 16, 2022
and last updated 2022-03-16 10:11:59-04

SAN DIEGO (KGTV) - For two years, the COVID-19 pandemic has transformed pregnancy from one of the happiest times in many people's lives into a constant state of worry and fear.

"It was eye-opening to see these young, healthy women get sick and get sick quite severely," says Dr. Joanna Adamczak, the Chief Medical Officer at Sharp-Mary Birch Hospital for Women and Newborns.

Dr. Adamczak says the number of women getting pregnant declined throughout the pandemic. Meanwhile, fear kept many of the women who did get pregnant from attending routine medical appointments.

"The mood, in the beginning, was everywhere, fear," Dr. Adamczak says. "Fear of the unknown."

Because COVID-19 was a brand new virus, no one knew how it would impact pregnant women or their unborn children. And even when vaccines got approval, the lack of pregnant women involved in the trials meant there was very little information on how they could affect pregnancies.

"We had very little data," says Dr. Cynthia Gyamfi-Bannerman, the Chair of the Department of Obstetrics, Gynecology, and Reproductive Sciences at UC San Diego Health. "Our recommendations were based on hypotheses and theories."

But a lot of that fear went away as more information came out. Research done in San Diego helped provide answers.

A June 2020 report from the National Institutes of Health found that pregnant women were particularly at-risk for COVID-19 infections. Not only were the women more susceptible to severe outcomes like hospitalizations or death, but their unborn babies were also at risk. They had higher incidences of preeclampsia, hypertension, premature birth, low birth weight, and stillbirth/miscarriages.

"We knew it was bad," said Dr. Gyamfi-Bannerman. "But then we had data to confirm it."

A lot of that data came from UC San Diego's MotherToBaby and the Center for Better Beginnings. They launched a handful of studies to follow pregnant women throughout the Pandemic and learn the impacts. Around 3200 women signed up over two years.

"We've had to learn what are the risks to pregnant women who become infected," explains MotherToBaby Co-Director Dr. Christina Chambers. "All of which led to, don't get infected if you can avoid it. And if you do get infected, seek treatment immediately."

MotherToBaby also worked to determine if the COVID-19 vaccine would be safe for pregnant women to take and if it would still provide protection against the virus.

As data showed vaccines were safe and effective for pregnant women, MotherToBaby became an essential CDC resource advocating for vaccinations.

"We have taken tens of thousands of calls and questions from pregnant women or women planning pregnancy," says Dr. Chambers. "All of them ask what we know about the safety of the vaccine."

Meanwhile, MOMI CORE, the Mother Milk Infant Center for Research Excellence, led a study to determine if COVID-19 could be passed from mother to baby through breast milk. It took just 160 days for them to publish a study showing that the infection did not transmit through breastfeeding. They also found that protective antibodies from infection or the vaccine did.

"The speed sounds fast," says MOMI CORE Director Dr. Lars Bode. "But really, that's 160 days of uncertainty. 160 days, half a year can be a very long time if you don't know exactly if your breast milk is safe or not."

Still, having all of that data gave doctors the tools they needed to debunk many of the myths surrounding the virus and its impact on pregnancy and lactation.

As studies continue, they hope to shed more light on the issue.

"We are in a much better place now than we were," says Dr. Gyamfi-Bannerman.

In the future, doctors say COVID-19 will become a manageable risk during pregnancy, similar to the flu or other respiratory diseases. They think booster shots may be recommended, along with masking and extra health and safety precautions during pregnancy.

"It's going to become part of daily life," says Dr. Gyamfi-Bannerman. "But, thankfully, we have treatments for that."

And research will continue. Dr. Chambers says they hope to follow many of their pregnant volunteers for years to learn how their children develop.

"For COVID, especially, and also for the vaccines, we need to capture the long-term neurodevelopmental outcomes," she says. "We really want to know how your kids are doing when they're four or five."

Dr. Bode adds that it will be essential to keep all of the connections, funding, and protocols from this Pandemic in place. That will help researchers work quickly when the next Pandemic arrives.

And doctors on the front lines say women must get vaccinated and stay in contact with their physicians.

"Speak to your health care providers," says Dr. Adamczak. "Talk to them about your fears and your concerns."

For the latest information about COVID and Pregnancy, visit the CDC website here.