What You Need to Know About How the Omicron Variant Affects Pregnancy

Key Takeaways

  • The latest COVID-19 Variant of Concern (VOC) is Omicron, which was first detected in Botswana and South Africa in November 2021.
  • Scientists and doctors are still trying to establish how Omicron is different from previous variants.
  • Pregnant individuals are advised to take extra precautions to protect themselves and their babies against Omicron.

As an expectant parent, it's perfectly natural to feel concerned about the health of your unborn child. In the midst of a global pandemic, those worries may ramp up a notch (or several). You're definitely not alone—it's totally normal to worry about COVID-19 during pregnancy.

The latest COVID-19 development is an unwelcome one—the rapid spread of a new variant, named Omicron. The Delta variant of COVID-19, which was first identified in India in late 2020 and spread rapidly throughout the world, remains the predominant SARS-CoV-2 variant. It is responsible for more than 99% of COVID-19 cases and causes an overwhelming increase in hospitalizations in some U.S. states, per CDC data as of December 16, 2021.1

But it’s the Omicron variant that’s truly under the spotlight at the moment. Let's break it down and set out exactly what you need to know about this variant if you or your loved one is pregnant.

What Is the Omicron Variant? 

Omicron is the latest COVID-19 variant of concern. The first report of Omicron to the World Health Organization (WHO) was on November 24, 2021. The strain was detected in Botswana on November 11, 2021, and again in South Africa just three days later.2

The following week, the U.S. government SARS-CoV-2 Interagency Group (SIG) classified Omicron as a Variant of Concern (VOC). This classification was based on the detection of cases attributed to Omicron in multiple countries and the transmission and replacement of the Delta variant in South Africa. The first confirmed case of Omicron in the U.S. was on December 1, 2021.3

While there's lots of speculation in the media about Omicron, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) states on their website, "We don’t yet know how easily it spreads, the severity of illness it causes, or how well available vaccines and medications work against it."4

How Dangerous Is the Omicron Variant? 

Experts believe that the Omicron variant spreads more quickly and easily to others, even if the infected person is vaccinated or asymptomatic. 

However, based on the data gathered so far, the Omicron variant appears to cause more mild symptoms than the Delta variant.5 “It is still not known whether the Omicron variant causes more severe disease in pregnant women compared to other COVID-19 variants,” says Sherry Ross, MD, OBGYN and women’s health expert at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, California. 

Right now, there’s no reason to suspect that the Omicron variant poses any greater risks to pregnant individuals than previous variants, says Charles Bailey, MD, medical director for infection prevention at Providence Mission Hospital and Providence St. Joseph Hospital in Orange County, California. 

What Risks Do Pregnant Individuals Face? 

Since COVID-19 first emerged in late 2019, scientists have been studying the effects of the virus and its variants on different population groups, including pregnant people. 

It is still not known whether the Omicron variant causes more severe disease in pregnant women compared to other COVID-19 variants.

— Sherry Ross, MD

Because people are already immune-suppressed while pregnant, getting COVID-19 during pregnancy can be dangerous and even deadly. In general, pregnant people have an increased risk for severe illness from the virus than people who aren’t pregnant.6 According to the CDC, pregnant individuals infected with COVID-19 are also at a higher risk for preterm birth (i.e. giving birth before 37 weeks) and stillbirth. They may also be at greater risk for other pregnancy complications.7 

“Pregnant women who contract COVID-19 have higher rates of stillbirths, gestational diabetes, preterm labor, placenta previa, placental abruption, blood clots, respiratory complications, and delivery by cesarean section,” explains Dr. Ross. 

More research is needed determine whether the Omicron variant can cause more severe complications during pregnancy.

Omicron Symptoms in Pregnant People

Essentially, Omicron symptoms are the same as symptoms of other COVID-19 variants—fever, cough, shortness of breath, and "flu-like" symptoms such as fatigue, headache, and muscle aches.5

“Upper respiratory symptoms (such as sore throat) may perhaps be seen more commonly with Omicron and loss of taste or smell less often,” says Dr. Bailey.

It’s important to remember that the Delta variant is still by far the most prominent strain circulating in all parts of the country, and any of the above symptoms suggesting possible COVID-19 infection should be taken seriously.

Do Vaccines Protect Against the Omicron Variant? 

If you’ve been debating getting your COVID-19 shot, now is the time to do it. 

“The COVID-19 vaccine is recommended by all the respected women’s health care organizations to be given to pre-pregnant, pregnant, or breastfeeding women at any time,” says Dr. Ross. “Medical studies support the vaccine's safety and protection to the mother and the baby through her antibodies.”

We are learning that the best line of defense against the Omicron variant is the booster shot, which is available to you and to most members of your family.

— Carol Winner, MPH

If you’ve heard that the COVID-19 vaccine can cause miscarriage or infertility, these claims are false, Dr. Ross adds. 

“Omicron may be the new COVID-19 variant, but it’s not likely to be the last,” says Carol Winner, MPH, public health expert and author of children’s personal space book, What Do I Do With My Hugs?. "We are learning that the best line of defense against the Omicron variant is the booster shot, which is available to you and to most members of your family."

How Do I Protect Myself and My Baby From Omicron? 

Above all, get vaccinated. And if you’re already vaccinated, consider a booster, says Dr. Bailey.

Additional measures to protect yourself from COVID-19 include wearing a face mask if you’re indoors and in close proximity to people you do not know to be vaccinated and free of COVID-19 symptoms and avoiding large gatherings or situations where masking and social distancing cannot be guaranteed.

“Vaccines are COVID-19 resistant, not COVID-19 proof, so recognize that one unvaccinated family member can infect anybody else, including a pregnant woman,” says Winner. “It’s truly a family affair in that everyone who can take control of their health must do so, in order to protect one another.” 

The CDC hygiene guidelines that have been in place since the very start of the COVID-19 pandemic still stand, says Dr. Ross. Wash your hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds, and if soap and water are not readily available, use a hand sanitizer that contains at least 60% alcohol. Avoid touching your eyes, nose, and mouth with unwashed hands. 

By being cautious and following these simple lifestyle habits during pregnancy, you can help prevent a potentially harmful disease—and ease those pregnancy fears.  

What This Means For You

The Omicron variant appears to be more easily transmitted from person to person than previous COVID-19 variants. While it doesn't seem to result in more severe illness, there are still many unknowns at this stage.5

People who are pregnant and are already immunocompromised should take extra precautions to avoid contracting the Omicron variant. If you haven't had your booster shot, now would be a good time to get that scheduled.

If you have any concerns about the safety or efficacy of the COVID-19 vaccine or booster during pregnancy, speak to your healthcare provider.

The information in this article is current as of the date listed, which means newer information may be available when you read this. For the most recent updates on COVID-19, visit our coronavirus news page.

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