Where are the preemies? Number of premature births plummets in pandemic

Medical Watch

There has been an unexpected benefit for infants in the pandemic. Hospitals across the country saw fewer premature births.

Babies who are born prematurely can have a host of medical complications.

And while doctors don’t know exactly why expectant mothers carried their babies longer during the pandemic and quarantine, they suspect the positive habits stemming from infection avoidance may have played a role.

When the pandemic hit hard, the message went out early and often, wash hands.

The hyper hygiene practices washed out impurities for mother and baby. And appear to have dried up the population in the neonatal intensive care unit.

Dr. Aloka Patel is a neonatologist at Rush University Medical Center

“First thing I thought it was just infection and that maybe women are more conscientious with hygiene, handwashing, distancing,” he said. “We know infection and inflammation can be precipitance of preterm labor.”

Stress and the hustle and bustle of work and family filled schedules was all halted as stay at home orders went into effect.

“Maybe they are not actually on bedrest, but women are home. They are resting more. There’s less of that going back and forth to work on your feet all the time,” Patel said. “Those were our theories.”

While no formal studies were conducted on preemie levels plummeting, the numbers spoke volumes.

“We were down about 60 percent from where we were last year for about two months,” Patel said. “And now we’re seeing a resurgence again. June and July, the numbers are back to where they normally are.”

Rush University Medical Center saw the biggest preemie decline locally during quarantine. But other hospitals recognized a trend lower as well including Northwestern’s Prentice Women’s Hospital, Lake Forest Hospital and Northwest Community Hospital. And experts said they want to know why, so they can potentially harness the positive effect.

“I do think we need to do a study across the country. I would like to see, does it correlate with a time course of different cities shutting down? Or with when the pandemic peaked in different areas?” Patel said. “That would be interesting and maybe helpful. … If there is something that actually decreased the rate of prematurity, what was it? How can we replicate it? How can we implement it and is it going to be effective?”

Studies out of Ireland and Denmark also showed significant dips in premature births. But most of the studies ended before countries opened back up.

As for Rush, hospital staff treated 1400 hospitalized COVID patients. Some wonder if expectant mothers avoided the hospital for fear of COVID and chose to deliver in smaller, suburban centers.

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