Reviewed By: Jeanne Sheffield, M.D.
As rates of COVID-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus, continue to climb, pregnant women may be worried about contracting the virus and transmitting it to their unborn child.
Jeanne Sheffield, M.D. is an expert in maternal-fetal medicine at Johns Hopkins. She says that, though there is little research available as of now, initial reports coming out of China indicate that the chances of mother-to-fetus transmission of COVID-19 are low, but can’t be ruled out.
Early Report on Coronavirus, Mothers and Babies
In a letter published on March 26 in the Journal of the American Medical Association’s (JAMA’s) Pediatrics journal, researchers reported on pregnancy outcomes for 33 Chinese mothers who gave birth while infected with COVID-19.
Of those 33 babies, three (9%) tested positive for the coronavirus at birth and experienced relatively mild symptoms that included fever and pneumonia. One of the infected babies who was born at 31 weeks had additional challenges, but recovered.
Each of the three tested negative for the coronavirus within a week, and, most important, all survived.
Sheffield says, “This report shows that it may be possible for a woman to transmit COVID-19 to her unborn baby. But because it looks at data from only a very few women and babies, we need more information before we can determine the likelihood of infection.”
COVID-19: What Pregnant Women Should Do Now
“Pregnant women can experience changes to their immune systems that can make them more vulnerable to respiratory viruses,” Sheffield says.
“As of right now, it’s too early to tell if COVID-19 in particular is associated with pregnancy loss, miscarriage or stillbirth,” she says. “But we do know that high fevers in pregnancy, especially in the first trimester, can raise the risk of birth defects. That is why we encourage our patients to protect themselves from any illness that causes fever, including the flu.”
While there’s not yet a vaccine or treatment for COVID-19, expectant mothers can still be proactive.
Sheffield says, “If you’re pregnant, you should take precautions to protect yourself from getting infected with COVID-19. Do everything you can, including social distancing, handwashing and staying in close contact with your provider.”
She says many practitioners are scheduling less frequent appointments to help pregnant patients limit trips to the doctor’s office. Other obstetricians are ramping up telemedicine processes so that they can continue to monitor pregnant patients without an in-person visit.
Should pregnant women get a coronavirus test? Sheffield says, “Ideally, all pregnant women should definitely get screened for COVID-19, but especially those with cough, fever or any respiratory symptoms.”
Hospital Visitors During the Coronavirus Pandemic
Sheffield says that there’s one more very important item for pregnant women to remember: many hospitals are changing their visitor policies to control the spread of the new coronavirus.
For instance, labor and delivery at The Johns Hopkins Hospital strictly limits visitors to one. That means a patient can designate only one person to accompany her through the birth process: a partner, a family member or a doula. The hospital’s ambulatory birth center is not allowing any visitors at all while the pandemic continues to accelerate.
Such policies can be hard on families, dashing plans and expectations for a joyous birth shared among loved ones. But, says Sheffield, these limits are essential to protecting patients, their babies, other patients and hospital staff.
“People have been gracious and understanding,” she says. “We appreciate everyone’s cooperation in these extraordinary times.”