Published August 30, 2021
The Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology in the Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences is leading an effort to promote vaccination against COVID-19 among pregnant women in Western New York.
More than 60 percent of adults in the U.S. have now been fully vaccinated. But among pregnant women, a vulnerable population, the rate of vaccination is estimated to be far lower, under 20 percent nationally. The rate is believed to be even lower in certain geographic areas, including in Western New York.
On Aug. 25, the department presented “The OB-GYN’s Critical Role in Vaccinating Pregnant Women,” a continuing medical education lecture for health care providers via videoconference.
Presenters were Erie County Commissioner of Health Gale R. Burstein, MD, a clinical professor of pediatrics, and Heather Link, MD, clinical assistant professor of obstetrics and gynecology and a clinical specialist in maternal-fetal medicine at the Oishei Children’s Hospital.
“The lecture was designed to equip local providers with the information they need to better educate patients about the special risks that COVID-19 poses to pregnant women and the significant benefits of getting vaccinated, not only for the mother but also for baby,” says Sarah L. Berga, MD, professor and chair of obstetrics and gynecology.
“The health consequences of getting COVID-19 during pregnancy are alarming and most people just don’t appreciate the risks,” says Berga, president of UBMD Obstetrics and Gynecology, and medical director of Obstetrics and Gynecology and Women’s Health Program Development for Kaleida Health. “Most sobering of all is the fact that pregnant women with COVID-19 are at a much higher risk of dying than are pregnant women who do not have COVID-19.”
Pregnant women with COVID-19 also are at significantly increased risk for needing intensive care unit admission and mechanical ventilation; they also have a markedly increased risk of preterm (early) delivery.
“All of these risks do not just impact the mother, but also her baby. Preterm delivery alone increases neonatal morbidity and mortality,” Berga says. “We need to do everything we can to help our pregnant moms understand the benefits of COVID-19 vaccination.”
The lecture is part of a comprehensive effort being launched in Western New York to advise pregnant women about the need to get vaccinated, an effort that the organizers say is likely to gain momentum given the recent authorization of the Pfizer vaccine by the Food and Drug Administration.
Led by Berga, UB and UBMD Physicians’ Group are focused on boosting vaccination rates using a multipronged approach aimed at local providers as well as at pregnant women directly. The effort is supported by Oishei Children’s Hospital and Kaleida Health.
With young children heading back to school in person, Berga and her colleagues are especially keen on getting this information out to local providers.
“With children going back to school, we may well precipitate a ‘perfect storm’ of infections among pregnant women as children, even very young children, are now primary vectors for the spread of the delta variant of COVID-19,” Berga says. “Pregnant women are often mothers of small children, hence we face the ominous prospect of putting pregnant moms at increased risk of getting COVID-19.”
She notes that the CDC has added pregnancy to its list of medical conditions that can put an individual at increased risk of developing severe illness if they become infected with COVID-19.
“It is important to emphasize that all family members who are eligible need to get vaccinated to protect the place where the pregnant mother lives and will return to with her baby once delivered,” Berga says. “Everyone has to do their part.”
In contrast, Berga says the more than 139,000 pregnant women who were vaccinated against COVID-19 have experienced no increase in symptoms as compared to non-pregnant women, no increase in consequences such as preterm delivery, miscarriage or decreased fertility rates, nor any decrease in success of infertility interventions.
“In addition, antibodies from the vaccine show up in umbilical cord blood and in the mother’s breast milk,” she notes. “So, when you get vaccinated while pregnant you may very well be protecting your baby against COVID-19, an added bonus.”
For couples who are trying to get pregnant or are contemplating infertility treatments, vaccination is advised as well.
“Just like any other severe illness, infection with COVID-19 can also negatively impact fertility, something that couples should consider if they are trying to get pregnant,” Berga says. “For example, COVID-19 infections have been shown to impair both the concentration and motility of sperm.”
On the other hand, when it comes to the COVID-19 vaccines, Berga says the vaccine studies have shown no effect on fertility for either men or women.