Pregnant? Here’s What to Know About Coronavirus Risk

How COVID-19 might affect you and your baby
Pregnant woman at home in bed

The COVID-19 pandemic has everyone on edge (and then some). If you’re pregnant, you no doubt have questions about whether the new coronavirus poses a risk to you and your developing baby.

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The answers aren’t crystal clear, says Ob/Gyn Oluwatosin Goje, MD.

“COVID-19 is an evolving pandemic. We’re still learning about its effect on pregnant women and infants.”

But there is some reassuring evidence from the frontlines of the COVID-19 outbreak. And while this disease is new, fevers and respiratory illnesses are not. “Knowledge gained from past epidemics helps us understand and manage viral infections in pregnancy,” Dr. Goje says.

What we know so far

The culprit behind COVID-19 is a virus named SARS-CoV-2. This new virus is closely related to the SARS-CoV-1 virus (which caused the severe acute respiratory syndrome outbreak in 2002). It’s also a cousin of MERS-CoV (which causes Middle East respiratory syndrome). There’s no evidence that either of those diseases can be passed from mother to fetus during the pregnancy, Dr. Goje notes.

A report in The Lancet medical journal looked at nine pregnant women in China with COVID-19. Overall, the news was good. None of the mothers developed severe illness. Two babies did show some signs of distress, but all nine babies were born alive and fairly healthy — and they all tested negative for coronavirus.

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In March, a newborn in London reportedly tested positive for the virus after being born to a mother with COVID-19. But doctors aren’t sure if the virus passed from mother to baby before birth or after.

Coronavirus in the first trimester vs. second and third

The nine pregnant women in The Lancet study got sick during their second or third trimesters. Doctors still aren’t sure how the disease might affect women and developing babies earlier in pregnancy, during the first trimester.

High fevers in early pregnancy can increase the risk of some birth defects, Dr. Goje notes. That’s something doctors and researchers will need to watch closely as COVID-19 unfolds. “Little is known right now about the impact of COVID-19 in the first trimester,” she says.

Precautions for pregnant women

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says it’s not yet known whether pregnant women are any more likely to get sick from COVID-19 than anyone else.

But, while there’s a lot we don’t know about this disease, we do know actions we can take to avoid it. Dr. Goje recommends these precautions for pregnant women:

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  • Wash your hands frequently. You’ve heard this advice over and over (and over). But for good reason: Hand hygiene really can stop the virus in its tracks.
  • Practice social distancing. Avoid contact with others, especially in large groups. When you’re around other people, try to keep 6 feet between you.
  • Get the flu shot. It won’t protect you against COVID-19. But it will lower the risk of catching influenza, another more common respiratory illness that can cause complications for expectant moms.
  • Go virtual. Whenever possible, consider virtual prenatal visits with your doctor instead of in-person appointments. Spending less time in the waiting room and doctor’s office might reduce the risk of catching the virus. However, some visits will still need to be in-person, such as ultrasounds, fetal testing and some blood work.
  • Call your doctor if you’re coughing. If you develop respiratory symptoms such as cough, fever or shortness of breath contact your doctor via telephone or e-visit. They’ll determine if you should be tested for the coronavirus and what your next steps should be.

Managing stress and symptoms during pregnancy

It’s an uncertain time, and it’s normal to feel stressed. But there are steps you can take to help keep your stress and anxiety under control. Now’s a good time to lean on your tribe for support. (Just do the leaning mostly via text and phone, social-distancing style.) Consider acquiring a new skill or hobby at home.

Remember, too, that medical teams have been preparing. They have lots of experience treating pregnant women who have the flu and other respiratory viruses, including SARS-CoV-1 and MERS-CoV, Dr. Goje points out. And hospitals have systems for dealing with respiratory disease.

“We have plans in place for managing pregnant women with symptoms of COVID-19 and to reduce exposure of newborns to the disease.”

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