COVID-19 linked to increase in US pregnancy-related deaths

WASHINGTON (AP) — COVID-19 drove a dramatic increase in the number of women who died from pregnancy or childbirth complications in the United States last year, a crisis that has disproportionately claimed black and Hispanic women as victims, according to a government report released Wednesday.

The report describes gloomy trends across the country for expectant mothers and their newborn babies.

It finds that pregnancy-related deaths have increased by almost 80% since 2018, with COVID-19 being a factor in a quarter of the 1,178 deaths reported last year. The rate of prematurity and low birth weight also increased last year after remaining stable for years. And more pregnant or postpartum women report symptoms of depression.

“We were already in the midst of a maternal mortality crisis in our country,” said Karen Tabb Dina, a maternal health researcher at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. “This really shows that COVID-19 has exacerbated that crisis at rates that we as a country are unable to handle.”

The nonpartisan U.S. Government Accountability Office, which authored the report, analyzed pregnancy-related deaths after Congress mandated a review of maternal health outcomes in the 2020 coronavirus relief bill.

Maternal mortality in the US is higher than many other developed countries and had been increasing in the years leading up to the pandemic, but COVID-19 has only worsened conditions here for pregnant women.

Women who contract the virus while pregnant face elevated health risks. Lack of staff and COVID-19 restrictions created more barriers for expectant mothers to receive personal health care; And pandemic stress has exacerbated depressiona common condition during pregnancy.

Mental health issues likely contributed to the increase in pregnancy-related deaths, Tabb Dina said. Many women who experience depression and anxiety during or after their pregnancy struggle to get the care they need.

“Mental health is the biggest complication in pregnancy that we don’t understand,” she said.

The biggest increase in deaths came during July to December of last year, when the COVID-19 delta variant infected millions, noted Carolyn Yocom, a director at the Government Accountability Office.

“It’s really clear from the data that the time that the delta variant was spreading seemed to correspond with a huge increase in deaths,” Yocom said.

Maternal mortality is particularly stark for black women, who have long faced worse maternal outcomes than their peers.

Pregnancy-related deaths for every 100,000 births rose from 44 in 2019 to 68.9 among black women last year. White women had death rates of 26.1 last year, a jump from 17.9 in 2019.

Death rates among Hispanics had been declining, but they rose again during the pandemic from 12.6 per 100,000 in 2019 to 27.5 last year.

Black and Hispanic people have also died at higher rates from COVID-19, in part because they have less access to medical care and often work essential jobs that have exposed them to the virus.

Long before COVID-19 began to spread, the stage was set for black, low-income and rural women to receive substandard pregnancy care — putting them at additional risk for their pregnancies to go wrong, according to a separate GAO report.

Hospitals have abandoned their obstetric services in rural areaslow-income and majority black communities, the report said.

More than half of rural areas did not have a hospital offering pregnancy care in 2018, the review found.

“The loss of hospital-based obstetric services in rural areas is associated with increases in out-of-hospital births and preterm births, which may contribute to poor maternal and infant outcomes,” the report found.

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