CHICAGO — COVID-19 has had an impact on pregnant and postpartum women during the pandemic.
The Illinois Department of Public Health has been tracking the number of women testing positive for COVID-19 at delivery. The latest data shows from March 2020 to March 2021, there were nearly 1,500 positive cases.
Kari and Cody Belcher of Lake in the Hills said they are blessed to have a healthy and happy baby boy named August who will turn 2 in May. Kari Belcher is still very emotional even today because for her, becoming a mother was not an easy experience. Both she and her husband tested positive for COVID-19 in the week leading up to delivery.
Due to restrictions at the time, she had to give birth to her first child alone with her husband watching over Facetime. He said he felt helpless.
Kari Belcher remembers the brief moments before the nurses took August from her. She wasn’t able to hold or nurse him.
“I remember speaking to him,” she said. “That was hard. I just wanted him to hear my voice because I knew once he left that room he wouldn’t hear my voice anymore.”
It was a painstaking separation doctors had to enforce during this early stage of the pandemic.
Dr. Lauren Carlos specializes in high-risk obstetrics at Northwestern Medical Central DuPage Hospital in Winfield. She’s been working in the area since August, but started the pandemic at the University of Pittsburgh Women’s Hospital where she recalls one particularly difficult case, a patient in the ICU with Covid at only 24 weeks pregnant.
“We tried really hard to keep her pregnant as long as possible,” Carlos said. “Eventually it wasn’t safe for her or the baby so she got delivered when she was completely sedated and on the ventilator had to be transferred out to ECMO which is a complete heart and lung bypass machine.”
Fortunately, both mother and baby survived. Since then, we have covered similar cases in our area.
Back in September, WGN News met Donnell Kelly of McHenry, whose wife Samantha was fighting for her life at Advocate Lutheran General Hospital and was put on a ventilator for nearly a month.
Doctors delivered their son Holden by emergency cesarean section at 32 weeks when Samantha was sedated.
Eventually, they were released and able to go home and are now doing well.
Then there was the Olesen family. Jessica and Jesse’s baby boy Jay was born on Dec. 27 at Northwestern Medicine Prentice Women’s Hospital at 38 weeks. They knew he would require surgery after birth, for an intestinal hernia and fluid on his brain.
Nine days later, before being transferred to Lurie Children’s Hospital for surgery, Baby Jay tested positive for COVID-19 during a routine swab.
Jessica Olesen did as well, and doctors told her she had to leave Prentice Hospital and not see her baby for 10 days.
“To even hear that was just heartbreaking,” she said.
“I have had babies go to the NICU and the parents get COVID and not be able to visit their child for 10 days which is really tough, we are trying to protect all those other premature babies it’s just a tough situation,” Carlos said.
When it comes to pregnancy during the pandemic, the stress seems to be taking its toll.
According to the National Center for Health Statistics, many couples are consciously choosing to delay having children.
Births in the United States have generally declined about 2% per year since 2007. But the U.S. saw the largest dip from 2019 to 2020, where births declined from 3.8 to 3.6 million, a 4% drop.
The largest reductions in births were in New York, California and New Mexic. Their births dropped by 11%.
Job uncertainty and ongoing health concerns about COVID-19, reasons women are choosing to wait.
Pregnancy is putting women at higher risk of serious complications.
According to the CDC, symptomatic pregnant women are more than two and a half times likely to require ICU admission than women who aren’t pregnant and nearly three times as likely to be put on a ventilator.
A worldwide study by the T. H. Chan School of Public Health at Harvard found a major mental health crisis among pregnant and postpartum women.
Nearly 7,000 women from 64 countries were surveyed online. Among them, 31% reported experiencing depression and anxiety compared to just 5% before the pandemic.
And 43% said they believe they had post-traumatic stress disorder related to COVID-19 compared to just 6% three years ago.
About 86% of all women surveyed said they were somewhat or very worried about Covid.
Research that has changed hospital policies across the country and in Illinois.
“Eventually we started taking into account not just the infection risk but also the psychological risk of delivering a baby without your support person by your side and not being able to bond with the baby in those first few days,” Carlos said.
Northwestern Medical Central DuPage Hospital now allows two support people in the delivery room, and does not separate COVID-19 positive mothers from babies at birth.
The Belchers are thankful these policies have changed. They want to have more children, but like many Americans, are holding off for now, waiting until things feel a little safer. But when they’re ready, they’re dreaming of something much different.
“To be able to go through a normal birthing experience and to have him in the room with me and have him go pick up the kids to meet the new baby would be amazing an amazing feeling,” Kari Belcher said.
Doctors encourage any postpartum women struggling with anxiety or other mental health concerns to seek counseling.