LIMA — As the coronavirus pandemic crosses the nine-month threshold, pregnant women are finding themselves in a unique situation.
“Right now, many women who are giving birth right now at this time have had their entire pregnancy throughout this pandemic,” Help Me Grow spokesperson Marianne Pohlmann said.
What the consequences will be for newborns, however, is still a little foggy as the pandemic situation evolves.
On the medical side of things, pregnant women should be more careful in trying to avoid catching the coronavirus. According to guidelines released by the Centers for Disease Control just last month, pregnant women do have an increased risk of contracting a severe case of COVID-19, and the disease creates an increased risk for problems during pregnancy for expecting mothers.
Luckily, such risk doesn’t correlate with increased problems for the infant. Unlike other dangerous diseases, problems with the novel coronavirus affecting an infant in the womb are statistically almost non-existent at this stage of the pandemic.
“Vertical transmission before birth from mom to infant is extremely, exceedingly rare, to the point where there hasn’t been a dozen confirmed cases worldwide,” said Dr. William Scherger, an OB-GYN with Mercy Health-St. Rita’s Medical Center.
If pregnant women take the necessary precautions — wearing facial coverings, washing hands and maintaining social distance — they’ll most likely be fine, Scherger said. The risk does get more complicated after birth, when an infant actually can start breathing air, but person-to-person transmission isn’t the main focus.
Instead, it’s the stress.
“A lot of what has happened during COVID-19 — especially for single moms — it really just amplifies the usual challenges of working and childcare and parenting and meal prep and shopping,” said Lori Nester, a breastfeeding coordinator at Allen County WIC. “All the things that happen anyway, everything is just kind of amplified.”
If all those stresses stack up into something extreme, they can cause problems long after birth.
“That stress part of it is the biggest deal,” Scherger said. “We haven’t had to deal with nutrition restrictions or lack of food sources. We’re not there yet, but the social support question is a good one.”
Scherger clarified that it’s not just run-of-the-mill stress that can cause developmental problems later on, but if mothers are dealing with trauma comparable to wartime stress during their pregnancy — loss of job, loss of close family, homelessness — then there’s a danger that an unborn child will have to deal with behavioral and development problems long after they’re born.
Some statistics suggest that there may be local residents dealing with such issues. Women were affected in greater numbers during this year’s economic downturn as industries employing women in larger numbers — such as retail and food service businesses — were hit harder by the shutdowns. The Pew Research Center also found higher jumps in unemployment rates for minorities, immigrants, younger people and those with lower educational attainment.
Food insecurity is also an increasing problem. Locally, lines for food at the West Ohio Food Bank wrapped around blocks in the early days of the pandemic, and there’s been a larger-than-normal demand for food during the holidays. On the national level, Feeding America estimates that 17 million people will join the ranks of the food insecure by the end of the pandemic.
Then there’s simple things like basic support. As the pandemic encourages extended family to keep their distance, new mothers on shaky ground can’t turn to the same social support networks they had prior to the pandemic.
Overall, there’s just more stress than there was a year ago.
“People are more stressed about a lot of these things, especially if your financial future is uncertain,” Nester said. “They’re worried more about losing their house and paying their bills, but it’s hard to quantify how that is changed over the last year.”
In the mean time, social workers are hoping that pregnant women in need find some of the social services available to them. Both Nester and Pohlmann encouraged those in trouble to reach out in an effort to stop a problem before it has an impact long after the pandemic has ended.
“When keeping food on the table is a struggle, the last thing you’re going to think about is where is my child developmentally and how are they going to reach those developmental milestones,” Pohlmann said.
Reach Josh Ellerbrock at 567-242-0398.