The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention urged all pregnant women Wednesday to get the COVID-19 vaccine as hospitals in hot spots around the U.S. see disturbing numbers of unvaccinated mothers-to-be seriously ill with the virus.
Expectant women run a higher higher risk of severe illness and pregnancy complications from the coronavirus, including perhaps miscarriages and stillbirths. But their vaccination rates are low, with only about 23% having received at least one dose, according to CDC data.
‘’The vaccines are safe and effective, and it has never been more urgent to increase vaccinations as we face the highly transmissible delta variant and see severe outcomes from COVID-19 among unvaccinated pregnant people,’’ CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky said in a statement.
The updated guidance comes after a CDC analysis of new safety data on 2,500 women showed no increased risks of miscarriage for those who received at least one dose of the Pfizer or Moderna vaccine before 20 weeks of pregnancy. The analysis found a miscarriage rate of around 13%, within the normal range.
The CDC’s advice echoes recent recommendations from top obstetrician groups. The agency had previously encouraged pregnant women to consider vaccination but had stopped short of a full recommendation. The new advice also applies to nursing mothers and women planning to get pregnant.
Although pregnant women were not included in studies that led to authorization of COVID-19 vaccines, experts say real-world experience in tens of thousands of women shows that the shots are safe for them and that when given during pregnancy may offer some protection to newborns.
The new guidance comes amid a surge in COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations and deaths in the U.S., driven by the highly contagious delta variant.
Some health authorities believe the variant may cause more severe disease — in pregnant women and others as well — than earlier versions of the virus, though that is still under investigation.
National figures show the latest surge in cases among pregnant women is lower than it was during the outbreak's winter peak. But at some hospitals in states with low vaccination rates, the numbers of sick mothers-to-be outpace those during earlier surges, before vaccines were available.
“This is by far the worst we’ve seen in the pandemic,’’ said Dr. Jane Martin, an obstetrician with Ochsner Baptist Medical Center in New Orleans. She added: “It’s disheartening and it’s exhausting. It feels like it doesn’t have to be like this.”
At the beginning of the pandemic and with each surge, Ochsner had a few pregnant patients very sick with the virus, though the numbers had dwindled in recent months.
“A week or two ago that pace changed drastically,’’ Martin said. “We have had multiple critically ill pregnant patients admitted’’ every day, most requiring intensive care.
Martin said she has taken care of at least 30 pregnant patients hospitalized with COVID-19 over the last two weeks. Most were unvaccinated.
Experts say the lifting of mask rules and other social distancing precautions and the rise of the delta variant have contributed to the worrisome trend. But also, vaccinations weren’t made available to women of childbearing age and others under 65 until spring.
Early in her pregnancy, Tennessee kindergarten teacher Sara Brown decided she would wait until the baby was born to get the shots. There wasn’t much safety data yet about getting vaccinated during pregnancy, and at 36, she was young, healthy and “figured if I did get it, it would probably just be a bad cold.’’
But what seemed like a sinus infection in June turned into severe COVID-19, landing her in a Nashville intensive care unit for five days, on oxygen and struggling to breathe.
Her daughter Suzie was born healthy on Aug. 2. But it was a harrowing experience.
Additional reporting by The Associated Press.