Pregnant people or those who have recently given birth and not vaccinated against COVID-19 are at higher risk of serious illness and death. GPB’s Ellen Eldridge reports.

A nurse conducts an ultrasound on a pregnant person

Data from the National Perinatal COVID-19 Registry suggests approximately 2% of infants born to women who test positive for COVID-19 near the time of delivery have tested positive in the first 24 to 96 hours after birth.

Credit: Photo by MART PRODUCTION from Pexels

Fighting a wave of misinformation about pregnancy and the COVID-19 vaccine, Georgia doctors are working around the clock to get word out that the vaccine is safe and effective for women who are expecting — and for those who are currently breastfeeding.

In one case, a pregnant patient who was not yet vaccinated came down with COVID-19 and wound up having to be on oxygen for more than three weeks. 

"Vaccines have been a tremendous public health strategy," said Dr. Winston Price, an associate professor of pediatrics with Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine in South Georgia. "It's important that people realize that, for this pandemic, getting the vaccine not only protects them, but it protects their family, it protects their loved ones (and) it protects their community.”

Chad Ray, an associate professor with Augusta University, said he recently told a breastfeeding patient she should get vaccinated to protect herself and her infant.  

"She has been extremely resistant to getting vaccinated because of her newborn infant," Ray said. "My message to her was, 'The virus is way more dangerous for all parties involved — mom, dad, baby — than the vaccination.'"

While the risk of infants being born with COVID-19 is low, vaccinating their mothers also protects them before and after birth, Ray said.

Price agrees.

The vaccines have gone through the rigorous clinical trials that are necessary for any drug or medication or vaccine that comes to market, Price said.

The data has shown the “safety and effectiveness of COVID-19 vaccination during pregnancy has been growing,” according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “These data suggest that the benefits of receiving a COVID-19 vaccine outweigh any known or potential risks of vaccination during pregnancy.” 

In fact, the CDC has created an entire webpage titled “COVID-19 Vaccines While Pregnant or Breastfeeding” to get information out about the safety of the shot for those who are expecting.  

“COVID-19 vaccines do not cause infection, including in pregnant people or their babies,” the site says. “None of the COVID-19 vaccines contain the live virus that causes COVID-19 so a COVID-19 vaccine cannot make anyone sick with COVID-19, including pregnant people or their babies.”

The CDC also stresses that pregnancy causes changes in the body that can make people more likely to get sick from respiratory viruses such as those that cause COVID-19.

The CDC said other factors can further increase a pregnant or recently pregnant person’s risk for falling severely ill with COVID-19, such as: 

  • Being more than 25 years old;

  • Living or working in a community with high numbers of COVID-19 cases;

  • Living or working in a community with low levels of COVID-19 vaccination;

  • Working in places where it is difficult or not possible to keep at least 6 feet apart from people who might be sick;

  • Being part of some racial and ethnic minority groups, which have been put at increased risk of getting sick from COVID-19 because of the health inequities they face.

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The American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology has also issued statements recommending pregnant women get vaccinated. But as with so much else in the pandemic, doctors are facing misinformation that spreads over social media. Health officials say it takes time and patience to persuade some pregnant women to get the shot.

One question that often comes up has to do with how quickly the vaccines were developed when vaccines to fight other diseases took years to make. Price said he tells patients the COVID-19 vaccine followed the same approval process as the other vaccines.

An IV bag hangs in the foreground with a blurred health care worker in the background.

Emory Healthcare, like many hospitals and businesses across Georgia and the U.S., is experiencing staffing challenges.

Credit: (AP Photo/Carlos Giusti)

“The same vaccines that have allowed individuals to live longer and to not get serious diseases of polio and meningitis and pneumonia, those vaccines [went through] the same vaccines process that allowed the COVID-19 vaccine to come to market,” Price said.

The push to vaccinate pregnant women also comes at a time when the state is seeing more and more children falling ill with COVID-19 — something hospital systems never really dealt with during previous surges when patients tended to be mostly older people or those with preexisting conditions.

To date, cases of COVID-19-positive infants in the NICU at Children's Hospital of Atlanta are rare, a spokeswoman said in an email. 

"We currently have no infants in our NICUs testing positive for COVID-19," Jennifer Burkhardt said. "However, we have seen an increase in parents of our NICU babies testing positive for COVID-19, which creates challenges with parents being able to visit their babies in the NICU."

As of Thursday Aug. 19, CHOA had 31 children hospitalized with COVID-19. Whether any of those children are over the age of 12 or vaccinated was not disclosed.

Current understanding is that transmission of the virus from mother to baby is possible both in utero and after birth, Burkhardt said.

Data from the National Perinatal COVID-19 Registry suggests approximately 2% of infants born to women who test positive for COVID-19 near the time of delivery have tested positive in the first 24 hours to 96 hours after birth.  

But vaccination is safe during all three trimesters of pregnancy, and the COVID-19 vaccines appear to provide antibody coverage to a fetus and then to a newborn, Ray said.

He added that there's no evidence that vaccination against COVID-19 affects fertility.

Price said he and other leaders in medicine are concerned about pushback from several parents that this is a mild illness for children.

"We know that children do die from this disease, and we are still learning the impact of the long-haul syndrome in children," he said. "We know about the multi-system inflammatory disease in children."

At a rare joint news conference among executives of major hospitals in Metro Atlanta, officials said roughly 97% of COVID-19 patients in the intensive care units are unvaccinated. Piedmont Atlanta CMO Dr. Andy Jaffal and other hospital leaders urged Georgians to get vaccinated to stop the current surge. 

"I watched a 28-year-old, previously healthy, unvaccinated patient die from COVID complications," Jaffal said. "While we value every life, that one was tough because it could have been prevented."