Newly pregnant Omahan Paige Dempsey caught COVID-19 after her older son came home with it in February 2021, before vaccines were widely available.
Though she never had to go to the hospital, she was out of commission for about a month, exhausted and sick.
Dempsey, a 47-year-old life coach, felt she’d done everything right. She masked, she distanced. She caught it anyway.
“Who knows if the pregnancy affected my COVID experience,” she said. “But it didn’t help.”
Pregnant women tend to get sicker from COVID than other women of the same age, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
And unvaccinated pregnant women, especially, can face severe health repercussions – potential tragedies that their frustrated doctors say can be largely avoided if pregnant Nebraskans stop reading social media misinformation and start heeding medical advice.
“We have a safe and effective vaccine that reduces the risk of severe illness by 95 percent,” said Dr. Tifany Somer-Shely, chair of maternal and child health at Omaha’s Methodist Women’s Hospital. “All these women who are getting super super sick and having babies early or dying, it’s preventable. We don’t have to accept it.”
Two Nebraska women have indeed died of COVID while pregnant, said Dr. Ann Anderson-Berry, the medical director of the Nebraska Medicine and Bellevue Medical Center neonatal intensive care units. Other Nebraskans have lost their babies, she said. Many more have had babies born much earlier and sicker than normal.
There’s a simple solution, say Nebraska doctors and experts: Pregnant women should get jabbed. Women who’ve received the COVID vaccine don’t have the same risk of bad outcomes if they get the disease during pregnancy.
But many pregnant women here and across the country remain reluctant to do so.
Only two-thirds of pregnant women nationwide have received a COVID vaccine, according to the CDC. Providers from Nebraska’s largest hospitals said the state is no different.
Compare that to another high-risk group – senior citizens. Seniors, long identified as a group most likely to die from COVID-19, have a two-dose vaccination rate of nearly 90 percent.
Pregnant women who avoid getting vaccinated are reluctant to talk about their reasoning, even to doctors. But doctors at several major Nebraska hospitals believe that women are refusing the vaccine after getting bad advice on social media. Facebook posts describe the vaccine as too risky, share concerns that don’t exist or have been debunked and falsely claim that vaccines cause miscarriage or harm future fertility.
This misinformation “has penetrated our entire society,” including pregnant women, said Anderson-Berry, also the neonatology division chief at Children’s Hospital and Nebraska Medicine. “It’s heartbreaking.”
The truth, doctors say: Vaccines have been heavily studied and proven safe in pregnant women.
“There’s a huge amount of great science behind this,” said Teresa Berg, director of maternal-fetal medicine at the University of Nebraska Medical Center.
Vaccination is safe, Berg says. It’s a pregnant mother contracting COVID-19 that can be dangerous.
While most mothers and babies born after a case of COVID-19 are fine, both mom and baby are at greater risk of a litany of serious problems if the mother contracts COVID-19 while pregnant.
Pregnant women with COVID-19 are more likely than other women their age to be hospitalized, need intensive care and be placed on a ventilator.
Mothers are at higher risk of developing HELLP Syndrome, a severe version of pre-eclampsia, a pregnancy complication that can cause high blood pressure and early delivery.
Babies are more likely to be born prematurely. These very premature babies struggle to breathe, eat and regulate their own temperature. They often spend weeks in intensive care.
Emily Patel, a maternal-fetal medicine specialist at Methodist, said that when she sees a patient very sick from COVID, it makes her more determined to help the next patient avoid that fate.
“I’ve got to prevent that next person from being this woman with a baby with a premature delivery,” Patel said. “If I can change the mind of one or two or a handful of people that can make a difference … and maybe prevent one person from being hospitalized. Then that will be a win.”
Anderson-Berry said that so many babies were being born early this fall and winter that Nebraska high-level NICU units filled up and babies were sent out of state.
Omaha teacher Becca Rotert got vaccinated and boosted and did her best to avoid COVID-19. Like so many, she contracted a mild case anyway.
Rotert will be closely monitored, especially near the end of her pregnancy. So far, she and the baby are healthy.
“I don’t think that my symptoms would have been as mild…if I wasn’t triple vaccinated,” she said.
The vaccine benefits babies in another way, Anderson-Berry said. If a mother is vaccinated when pregnant, the baby retains some protection when born. If the mother breastfeeds, the baby gains further protection.
This can lower the risk level for babies, who can’t immediately receive the vaccine.
After Dempsey, the Omaha life coach, got sick, the vaccine came out. Though she’d have otherwise gotten the vaccine immediately, she hesitated.
She can pinpoint several factors that caused her to wait. She felt decision fatigue. She figured she was protected after getting sick. She didn’t want symptoms from the jab to affect her the way COVID-19 did. She had done expensive fertility treatments to get pregnant and felt she needed to take extra care.
Eventually, a medical doctor friend sent her some scientific literature that persuaded her.
“I believe in science and I trust this person who is a scientist, medical doctor, researcher, mom colleague, friend, to reassure me it was safe,” she said.
She got her second shot a few weeks before her daughter, Aoife, was born. She and the baby are both healthy.
Libby McDowell, 36, was always going to get the vaccine.
But when she got pregnant with twins in early 2021, the vaccine hadn’t been studied on first trimester recipients.
McDowell planned to get the vaccine in her third trimester. And she did – but it was too late.
McDowell caught COVID-19 in July. Her 46-year-old husband, Jamie, also unvaccinated, caught it from her. He died in August.
“I lost my person, and these babies are never going to know their dad,” she said. “He had such a big personality, and it’s just so hard to still believe that he’s not here.”
McDowell moved to Iowa with her mother, then delivered twin girls in December at Omaha’s Methodist Women’s Hospital.
She hopes other people will get the vaccine.
“I would do anything if I could go back in time to get vaccinated earlier,” she said.
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