COVID-19 transmission risk for moms and babies

As the coronavirus outbreak continues, the medical community learns more about how it affects certain populations.

As the coronavirus outbreak continues, the medical community learns more about how it affects certain populations. A study released July 9 by the University of Milan in Italy found the coronavirus and antibodies against it in the umbilical cord blood, breast milk, placentas and vaginas of some pregnant women infected with COVID-19, suggesting that the virus can be passed to fetuses and newborns. Should pregnant women be worried — and what can they do to protect themselves?

According to Jamil T. Elfarra, M.D., maternal-fetal medicine specialist with Norton Children’s Maternal-Fetal Medicine, while this study adds to the ongoing literature about COVID-19, the prevailing opinion at this time is that there is little risk of transmission.

“There is some emerging evidence that babies may be affected,” said Dr. Elfarra, who treats patients considered at high risk for pregnancy complications not necessarily related to the pandemic. “But I also want to point out that there are a few things that we have to keep in mind. The majority of the data that is out there is showing that there is little risk of transmission to the baby. However, as further studies emerge, we will have more knowledge and understanding of how this virus truly affects pregnancy and vigilance and caution at this time remain key.

“Also, mom having the virus does not necessarily mean the baby’s always going to get the virus. The other thing is that babies, even if they get it — it doesn’t mean that they’re going to have long-term complications. And that’s something that we still don’t know and we’re looking at.”

The study from Italy comes just as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) released a study stating that pregnant women may be at an increased risk for severe illness from the coronavirus, compared with women who aren’t pregnant, including increased risk for intensive care unit (ICU) admission and needing a ventilator.

Norton Children’s Maternal-Fetal Medicine

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“I want to stress that even though the data is showing that there’s an increased risk that moms need to go to the ICU to be monitored more carefully, that doctors in general look at the pregnant population very differently,” Dr. Elfarra said. “We have a much, much lower threshold to place pregnant women in observation, knowing that there are two patients, mom and the baby, and knowing the risks of pregnancy itself.”

Should pregnant women take extra precautions against COVID-19?

“I recommend that patients should be very vigilant, irrespective of what trimester they are at,” Dr. Elfarra said. “Our goal is to prevent the virus from getting to the mom in the first place.”

Precautions include going to their prenatal appointments as advised, as well as wearing a face mask. Constant hand hygiene and social distancing are key.

“We encourage washing their hands very frequently, maintaining social distancing, and also only going out and socializing with the people that they absolutely have to socialize with, and going to the things that they absolutely need to go to within reason,” Dr. Elfarra said. “Because this outbreak has been going on for a prolonged period of time, and people need to adapt and cautiously go back to their basic life needs.”

Dr. Elfarra emphasized to those who live with and are part of a pregnant woman’s community, their actions are important to protecting them, too.

“If you’re in contact with someone pregnant, you need to stick to wearing masks when you’re near them and make sure that you have washed your hands,” Dr. Elfarra said.

According to Dr. Elfarra, having an open line of communication with your OB/GYN or midwife to share your fears can help no matter which trimester you are in.

“For our pregnant patients, I want to reassure them that we as health care providers are always there for them,” Dr. Elfarra said. “The line of communication is open. They can relay any fears — anything that they’re worried about, they need to communicate to us.”

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