Pregnant? Here’s What You Need to Know About Coronavirus

Originally Published March 10, 2020 on Pregnancy | By Chauntel Brusie

Pregnancy can be an overwhelming time in your life, as you try to adjust to the idea of taking care of a whole new human, but throw in a brand-new virus that’s spreading over the globe and shutting major events and places down, and it can feel downright scary.

With cases of coronavirus (also known as COVID-19) on the rise in the U.S., it’s completely understandable that any new parent-to-be will want to be prepared to take steps to keep their baby safe. Here’s what medical experts are saying about the virus and pregnancy.

How risky is coronavirus really?

If you are pregnant right now and worried about coronavirus, Sherry A. Ross, MD, OB/GYN and Women’s Health Expert at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, CA, encourages you to speak to your doctor about your concerns. She points out that, in most cases, the risk of complications from influenza is potentially more dangerous to pregnant people right now than COVID-19.

“Even though both influenza and COVD-19 are a concern to pregnant women, I think the known complications of influenza is more concerning than the unknown threats of the COVD-19 virus,” she says. “Pregnant women should get a flu vaccine to help protect themselves from a potentially serious influenza infection in pregnancy. Until more is known about COVD-19, follow the CDC guidelines for high-risk groups, including pregnant women.”

One of the most important things you should know about COVID-19 is that although this particular strain is brand-new in humans, coronavirus itself has been around a long time already. There are several types of human coronaviruses that the CDC says usually infect everyone at some point in their lives. Most of the time, a coronavirus is just like getting a cold, although some strains of coronavirus are more serious, like SARS and MERS.

What makes COVID-19 different is that it’s a new type of coronavirus that has never been identified before in the human species. That means that, along with not knowing a lot about how the virus acts, we also don’t know a lot about how it will affect humans just yet either. That’s what makes it scary to a lot of people, and that’s why world officials are treating it as a serious threat. In cases of new viruses, especially given what we do know about it as being highly contagious with what appears to be a longer incubation period—it’s better to be more cautious.

So far, COVID-19 symptoms are a lot like the flu—fever, chills, cough, shortness of breath, runny nose, and muscle and body aches. 

How dangerous is coronavirus in pregnancy?

Sherry A. Ross, MD, OB/GYN and Women’s Health Expert at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, CA explains that because this is a brand-new virus with limited data available on it, there’s just not a whole of information yet on how it impacts pregnant people.

What doctors are able to do so far, she says, is look at how similar viruses in the past affected pregnancy—and that data points to the fact that pregnancy may make someone more at risk for complications.

“Based on past experiences with SARS, MERS and even influenza, it’s known that pregnant women may be at higher risk and more susceptible to severe illness than the general population if exposed,” she notes. “The elderly and those with other medical conditions—including pregnancy—have to be proactive in protecting themselves and their babies against potential catastrophic viral illnesses.”

Dr. Mary Mason, internist, mom, and founder of Little Medical School, explains that because pregnancy does have an effect on the immune system, someone who is pregnant may be more susceptible to viral respiratory infections, such as COVID-19, and more likely to be hospitalized from serious complications like pneumonia.

“That’s why we are still encouraging all patients, including pregnant women, to get their flu shots if they have not yet this season,” adds Dr. Mason. “As a bonus, babies of moms who get the flu shot during pregnancy have protection from the flu in the form of antibodies, which will protect them until they can get vaccinated for the flu at six months of age.”

Can a pregnant woman pass COVID-19 to her baby?

As Dr. Ross explains, doctors aren’t completely sure if COVID-19 passes through the placenta. So, in other words, they aren’t sure if the virus if or how exactly it can affect an unborn baby.

On one hand, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) notes that there is some limited evidence that suggests the virus can cause some adverse effects, like preterm birth, in infected pregnant women. But on the other hand, in the few cases that infants have been born to a mom who was infected with the virus, the babies did not test positive themselves.

What doctors are doing right now is looking at other types of coronaviruses to get an idea of how COVID-19 may affect pregnancy. “If you look at the history and course of other coronaviruses, such as SARS-CoV and MERS-CoV, the data suggests that pregnant women may have an increased risk for miscarriages and stillbirths and a more severe disease course with complications than non-pregnant women,” explains Dr. Mason.

She also notes that, as is the case with any type of infection that can cause a high fever in a pregnant person, there is some concern for an increase of certain birth defects such as spina bifida, cleft lip and anencephaly if the fever occurs the first trimester of pregnancy.

What about breastfeeding with coronavirus?

The ACOG also says that any woman who gets coronavirus should not stop breastfeeding her baby for the risk of spreading the virus to her baby through milk.

“Based on the current information, it isn’t likely that COVID-19 can be transferred from mom to baby through the amniotic fluid, cord blood or breast milk,” adds Dr. Mason. “This is important information for moms who want to breastfeed their infants.”

However, according to the ACOG, there could be a risk of the mom spreading it through the air, such as sneezing or mucus droplets, with such close contact, so in those cases, a mask could be worn to protect transmitting it to the baby.

In addition to the mask, Dr. Mason notes that doctors are recommending moms also washes her hands before and after they nurse their babies and clean all surfaces near the baby. There’s also the option to express milk away from the baby to try to limit the transfer of the virus.

How to stay safe during pregnancy

Dr. Ross suggests the following tips for staying safe during coronavirus if you are pregnant:

  • Avoid coronavirus affected areas, per the CDC’s updated list of affected areas.

  • Follow the CDC daily guidelines including staying home from work/school if sick, sneezing into your arm and washing hands frequently.

  • Wipe shared surfaces with a sanitizing cloth.

  • Do not touch your face.

  • Avoid contact with sick people and avoid crowded gatherings.

“For those at higher risk, which include pregnant women, stay at home as much as possible, make sure you have access to several weeks of supplies, limit close contact and exposure to crowds and sick people and wash your hands often,” she adds.

And if you are exhibiting any respiratory symptoms including shortness of breath, difficulty breathing or coughing, contact your pregnancy care provider, Dr. Ross advises.

How to protect your new baby

If you’re expecting a new baby soon, both Dr. Ross and Dr. Mason advocate for using “common sense” hygiene principles at the hospital and around your baby. And when you think about, taking a few extra precautionary steps can help prevent all kinds of bacteria and viruses that could endanger your baby, not just COVID-19.

You could take the following steps to protect you and your baby:

  • Pack extra soap, hand sanitizer and cleaning wipes in your bag for the hospital.

  • Insist that all visitors and hospital staff wash their hands for at least 20 seconds before they come in contact with you and the baby.

  • Remember to wipe your hospital tray table down with cleaning wipes several times a day. “Don’t assume every hard surface you touch has been cleaned properly,” says Dr. Ross.

  • Do not touch your face.

  • “If a hospital worker is coughing or sneezing and poses a risk for spreading unwanted germs you can speak to a nurse manager to report concerns,” says Dr. Ross.

  • Keep any excited big siblings away from the baby if they are coughing or sneezing.

  • Consider limiting visitors at home after the baby is home if possible. 

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