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Is COVID causing fetal death in pregnant women?

Those who contract the virus in pregnancy are also at greater risk of preterm birth.

CLEVELAND — Research has found that pregnant and recently pregnant women face a higher risk of becoming severely ill from COVID-19, with an increased likelihood of requiring hospitalization, intensive care, and use of a ventilator. 

Those who contract the virus in pregnancy are also at greater risk of preterm birth. That's why the coronavirus vaccine is strongly recommended for pregnant women by the CDC, The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG), and the Society for Maternal-Fetal Medicine (SMFM).

Last week, the Mississippi State Health Officer, Thomas Dobbs, made a statement that sent shockwaves across the nation.

“Sadly we’ve seen a pretty significant number of pregnant women not survive COVID in recent weeks,” Dobbs said his department is investigating the deaths of eight pregnant women who were unvaccinated and were infected with COVID. But what was more stunning was anecdotal findings of 72 fetal deaths in Mississippi since the pandemic began.

“It can be deadly for the baby in the womb. With COVID, we’ve seen a doubling of the rate of fetal demise or the death of the baby in the womb after 20 weeks,” Dobbs said, adding all of the cases were in unvaccinated women.

Linking COVID-19 directly to fetal death isn’t easy and much more research needs to be done. The Ohio Department of Health says they have not noted an increase in infection relating to pregnant women compared to the general population.

Like many women, Michelle Decker struggled with fertility issues, but treatment helped her have a daughter five years ago. During the pandemic, she says she was ready to try again but struggled with whether or not to get vaccinated. She works at Cleveland Clinic and dove into the known data to answer two questions.

“'What’s the worst that could happen if I get the vaccine? And what’s the worst that could happen if I get COVID?' For me, when I looked at all the scenarios, getting COVID was always worse, especially while pregnant,” Decker said.

For Decker, it was a matter of digging into the social media rumors and researching claims using legitimate and verified sources.

She got the first dose before she became pregnant and the second in her first trimester. Now, Decker is due to give birth to a baby girl in mid-October. She understands the fear, but hopes women study facts.

“We know there’s no increased risk in miscarriage when you look at over 100,000 women who got the vaccine at less than 20 weeks,” says Cleveland Clinic obstetrician-gynecologist, Dr. Tosin Goje.

But when it comes to fetal death in the womb, there’s the potential that other factors could have contributed too.

“If the mother has other underlying diseases-- diabetes, obesity that’s even a higher risk compared to the pregnant healthy patient that got COVID,” Dr. Goje said.

However, there is no question that COVID-19 is dangerous to both pregnant women and their babies.

“We see babies that are smaller, we’re seeing pre-term labor and we are seeing fetal deaths that are unexplained that we wonder if the COVID infection is what happened there,” says University Hospitals Cleveland Medical Center obstetrician-gynecologist, Dr. Ellie Ragsdale.

While these cases are not common in Ohio, they are happening. Whether they’re directly linked to COVID needs further study. What has been studied is the impact of the vaccine on pregnant women.

“The thing that we know for sure is COVID is dangerous for pregnancy, it increases the risk of all pregnancy complications and we have not seen those complications with the vaccine, with COVID infection we have seen an increase of miscarriage, an increase of pregnancy loss, clearly the benefits of vaccination far outweigh the risks and I don’t think we can say that with COVID, we know the outcomes are terrible,” Dr. Ragsdale said.

Dr. Ragsdale says currently at UH, about 40 percent of pregnant patients have received the vaccine. She hopes to see it increase.

“I tell every pregnant woman I see in the office the single best thing you can do for the health and safety of your baby is to go and get vaccinated,” she said.

As for Decker, she’s relieved and grateful she took the step to get vaccinated.

“I’m going to do everything in my power to keep my kids safe,” she said.