Doctors urge pregnant patients to get vaccinated to protect themselves, their babies

August 06, 2021
close up of a woman's pregnant belly. pinned on her dress is a button saying she is vaccinated
Pregnant women who get COVID-19 are more likely to become seriously ill than their same-age counterparts who aren't pregnant. Photo by Sarah Pack

One group that is especially lagging in COVID-19 vaccination also happens to be at higher risk of severe illness – pregnant women.

The lack of vaccination is concerning to doctors as they watch the more contagious delta variant sweep across the nation.

headshot of Dr Rebecca Wineland 
Dr. Rebecca Wineland

"What I've been telling patients is ‘Go get the vaccine today. Immediately. It will decrease your risk of death, it will decrease your risk of ICU admission, and it will decrease your risk of long-term comorbidities from having COVID,’” said MUSC Health Charleston’s Rebecca Wineland, M.D., who specializes in treating high-risk pregnancies.

That advice holds true for everyone, but especially pregnant people. Although a pregnant woman isn’t more likely to catch COVID-19, she is more likely to become seriously ill if she does catch COVID-19. The risks include the respiratory distress that is common to COVID-19 patients as well as ICU admission, pre-eclampsia, premature birth, NICU stays for the baby, stillbirth or miscarriage and death.

MUSC Health Florence’s Germina Suffrant, M.D., has seen this in Florence. She recalls a patient last year who was young and in good health, although slightly overweight, who quickly progressed from shortness of breath to intubation to emergency C-section.

head shot of Dr Suffrant 
Dr. Germina Suffrant  

“She was in the hospital for weeks, and she’s still suffering the consequences of that,” Suffrant said.

Many other patients, even those with mild symptoms, have delivered early, she said.

On July 30, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists and the Society for Maternal-Fetal Medicine issued a joint statement strongly recommending that all pregnant women get vaccinated, regardless of trimester.

National groups held off on recommendations when vaccines first became available because pregnant women hadn’t been included in the clinical trials, although some trial participants did become pregnant during the course of the trials. Since the vaccines have become available, though, tens of thousands of pregnant women have been safely vaccinated, ACOG and the SMFM said.

"The recent surge of the delta variant, along with the safety profile of the vaccines, has led our national guidelines to strongly recommend vaccination for all pregnant and lactating women," Wineland said. "We also suspect that maternal antibodies from the vaccine transfer to the unborn baby and provide some protection to the newborn."

The delta variant has caused a resurgence of cases – the MUSC COVID-19 Epidemiology Intelligence Project reported a 139% increase in the seven-day average of Tri-county cases last week – and the vast majority of people hospitalized with COVID-19 are unvaccinated.

“The last five days – it's been terrible, honestly. Just devastating,” Wineland said.

Wineland said the most common reason that her patients give for not being vaccinated is that they thought that pregnant women can’t get the vaccine.

“They were surprised when I told them,” Wineland said.

Suffrant said distrust about vaccines in general – a distrust that has been growing for the past couple of decades – and concern about the mRNA type of vaccine, which relies on a technology previously unknown to the general public, have contributed to vaccine hesitancy among her pregnant patients.

“We understand the fear, but we do see the consequences of having COVID in pregnancy,” she said.

She urges patients to get the vaccine, emphasizing that it is safe and will not only protect the mother but also her unborn child.