Dr. Wendy Whittle, a maternal-fetal medicine specialist at Mount Sinai Hospital in Toronto, co-authored a new briefing document from Ontario’s COVID-19 Science Advisory Table, which notes the risks of getting COVID-19 while pregnant include having a higher chance of needing a C-section or having a preterm birth, according to preliminary evidence.
The latest available Canadian data compiled by the Canadian Surveillance of COVID-19 in the Pregnancy team (CANCOVID) also suggests people who are pregnant are nearly five times more likely to be admitted to hospital for COVID-19 than their non-pregnant peers — and 10 times more likely to be admitted to an ICU.
“Seven to 15 percent of pregnant individuals with COVID-19 will experience moderate to a severe disease requiring hospitalization,” the briefing document reads.
The advisory team did note that the increased risk of hospitalization could be explained in part by “a lower threshold” to provide care during pregnancy, meaning pregnant people may be admitted to a hospital where a non-pregnant person with the same symptoms would not. But, they stressed people who are pregnant also showed a higher risk of needing mechanical ventilation in various studies, which is “indicative of clinically severe disease.”
While both Canadian and international research suggests the bulk of infections during pregnancy are either asymptomatic or mild, Whittle said the higher risks of serious health outcomes are concerning, particularly since pregnant people typically have lower vaccination rates, as seen in data from Ontario and the U.S.
“That makes me absolutely petrified,” she said.
Vaccines proving safe, effective during pregnancy
Women’s health experts say aside from basic precautions, getting vaccinated is the best way to prevent a serious COVID-19 infection. But navigating whether or not to get a shot has been a fraught process for many Canadian women.
“Even though we have real-life data, and it’s very good quality data, that first message that COVID-19 vaccines were not tested in pregnancy is on people’s minds,” said CANCOVID collaborator Dr. Eliana Castillo, a clinical associate professor with the departments of Obstetrics and Gynecology and Medicine at the University of Calgary.
“And if you add all the inherent fears and uncertainties that are normal to any pregnancy, and the huge amount of misinformation that is in social media, we have just the combination that is very detrimental to moms and babies.”
Yet the vaccines approved in Canada and the U.S. have proven both safe and effective during pregnancy, according to scientists and researchers on both sides of the border.
There are multiple large-scale analysis studies showing the effectiveness of vaccines alongside “no concerning safety signals reported among pregnant vaccine recipients,” reads the Ontario COVID-19 Science Advisory Table’s recent briefing note.
A U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) analysis of available data assessed vaccination in early pregnancy and didn’t find any increased risk of miscarriage among nearly 2,500 pregnant women who received an mRNA-based vaccine before the 20-week mark.
Previous data from three safety monitoring systems also did not find any safety concerns either for pregnant people who were vaccinated late in pregnancy or for their babies, according to the CDC.
“We have a vaccine that works in pregnancy, that is safe,” Dr. Castillo stressed. “And very importantly, that is not only going to keep you safe, but actually we have good evidence that the protection you get will be passed on to your baby.”
This post is also available in: English