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Pregnant During the Pandemic

Pregnant During the Pandemic

One couple’s journey to start a family in uncertain times

Eloise Whitacre, 1½, is a blonde, blue-eyed toddler who adores dancing and playing peek-a-boo. “She loves books,” says mom Mary Beth Whitacre. “She’ll pull 10 off the shelf to look at.”

Whitacre, 35, who works on Valley Health’s marketing team, was pregnant with Eloise during the first nine months of the COVID pandemic. The baby was conceived via in vitro fertilization just as early news of the virus trickled out of China in late December 2019. Shortly after Mary Beth and her husband, Dan, celebrated his birthday by going out to dinner in early March 2020, the pandemic began reshaping their lives.

“COVID shutdowns began on March 13,” says Dan, 39, a realtor in Winchester. “It was such a difficult road just getting to the point where Mary Beth was pregnant with our first child, so we were superexcited. Then COVID hit and there were so many unknowns. We were in a global pandemic where nobody knew what to do.”

Their first priority: avoiding exposure to the virus. “No one knew at the time what it could mean for a baby if the mom contracted COVID,” Mary Beth says. “There were no vaccines. So we were very careful.” She began working from home, joined by Dan for the first month. The couple had groceries delivered, only socialized with friends and family outdoors, and spent their time cocooned at home playing Scrabble and Rummikub for fun. When Dan showed houses to prospective buyers, he practiced social distancing. “There was a lot of hand washing and hand sanitizing,” he says.

Leslie Kidd, MD, one of the eight physicians at Winchester Obstetrics and Gynecology, Mary Beth’s obstetrical group, says she and her colleagues urge expectant parents to take all steps possible to avoid contracting COVID because of the risks to moms and babies. This includes getting vaccinated.

There was no vaccine available in 2020, so for the Whitacres, the pandemic rewrote some pregnancy plans. Dan couldn’t accompany Mary Beth to medical appointments. Their parents, who live nearby, couldn’t stop by for coffee or dinner. Mary Beth’s baby showers took place outdoors. And she had to take a COVID test a week before her September due date. It was negative. “It wasn’t clear what would happen if I had COVID when the baby was born,” she says. “It was possible I would have to isolate away from the baby at first. Fortunately, that did not happen.”

Dan was with Mary Beth before, during and after Eloise’s birth at Winchester Medical Center. “I could have one person with me,” Mary Beth says. The new family’s first moments together at the hospital felt happy and normal. “Those nurses were absolutely incredible,” Dan says. “Honestly, in the hospital we kind of forgot about COVID because the care was that good.” The couple’s parents quarantined for two weeks, at Mary Beth’s request, so that they could safely meet and hold their new granddaughter.

This was a wise decision. “More than 90 percent of neonatal COVID infections come from family members,” notes Dr. Kidd.

After her maternity leave ended, Mary Beth continued working from home and found herself assisting with community vaccination efforts. “I was on the phone and computer for 12 hours some days, helping people register for appointments,” she says. “Dan and I received the vaccine, too. And Eloise had some protection for as long as she was nursing.”

OB/GYN Leslie Kidd, MD, with patient Mary Beth Whitacre

Mary Beth is expecting the couple’s second child this summer. To stay safe, they track COVID case numbers at Valley Health and carefully weigh the risks and benefits of outings. “This time around it’s different,” Dan says. “The Omicron variant is highly contagious, but people are out everywhere. We might decline an invitation to an indoor dinner with a lot of people.”

Dr. Kidd agrees that expectant parents should continue to be cautious—and get vaccinated. “Please trust my scientific expertise: There is an increased risk of complications if the mother gets COVID. We are still learning, and there’s lots we don’t understand yet. But vaccination is our best defense against the virus, and it’s one of the safest vaccines we’ve seen in decades.”

Despite the new challenges associated with pregnancy in the times of COVID, Mary Beth and Dan are looking forward to the birth of Eloise’s baby sister at WMC. “The care was so good the first time, in difficult circumstances, that we’re excited to go back,” says Dan.

What Parents-to-Be Should Know About COVID

Pregnant women—as well as couples trying to conceive—face new risks to their own health and that of their baby if they get COVID. Expectant parents are full of questions, so we reached out to Leslie Kidd, MD, a board-certified obstetrician with Winchester Obstetrics and Gynecology, to learn more on how to best prevent complications and ensure healthy and safe pregnancies.

HealthLINK: What risks do pregnant women face if they get COVID?

Dr. Leslie Kidd: "The overall risk of complications is low, but pregnancy itself is an immunocompromised state, so pregnant women with COVID have 15 to 20 times the risk of complications compared to nonpregnant women. And pregnant women with certain health conditions—such as diabetes, hypertension, obesity, asthma, and
other diseases—have additional risk of complications."

HL: What are the risks to babies if a pregnant mom has COVID?

LK: "We are still learning about the impacts of COVID on pregnant women and babies, but some initial findings are concerning. If the mom gets COVID, we have seen an increase in fetal growth restriction [low birth weight] and preterm birth, and the risk of stillbirth is four times greater. COVID may affect how the placenta oxygenates babies since the virus can impact blood-clotting factors."

HL: What treatments should be given to a pregnant woman with COVID?

LK: "Pregnant women can use monoclonal antibodies. These are safe and help clear the active virus from the system more rapidly, so there’s less risk for long-term complications."

HL: Should a new mom breastfeed if she has COVID?

LK: "We encourage breastfeeding and wearing a mask while doing so if the mom has an active infection. Women who have been vaccinated pass antibodies from the vaccine to the baby through the breast milk, providing babies with additional protection."

• HL: Should a woman who is trying to conceive or who is already pregnant get the vaccine?

LK: "If a woman conceives and hasn’t been vaccinated or had a booster yet, I recommend she do it while pregnant. The Pfizer and Moderna vaccines are recommended; the J&J is not recommended because a small number of women of reproductive age have had an uncommon side effect, a clot in the cerebellum."

• HL: What are common misconceptions about COVID vaccines and pregnancy?

LK: "The vaccine is the best defense against the virus, and its safety profiles are incredibly good. Some studies have shown that the COVID virus itself can decrease sperm counts in men, but the vaccines do not cause infertility, and specialists recommend that both partners get vaccinated prior to conception. As with all patient groups, those who get seriously ill are the unvaccinated, and I don’t want to see anything happen to my pregnant patients or their babies when complications can be prevented with a couple of shots."

To learn more about giving birth during COVID-19, click here