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New Utah study says COVID-19 can raise risk of pregnancy complications

A worker holds a rapid COVID-19 antigen test on a table at a testing site in Sandy on Aug. 2, 2021.  A new University of Utah Health study published on Feb. 7 found women who test positive for COVID-19 have a higher risk of pregnancy complications.

A worker holds a rapid COVID-19 antigen test on a table at a testing site in Sandy on Aug. 2, 2021. A new University of Utah Health study published on Feb. 7 found women who test positive for COVID-19 have a higher risk of pregnancy complications. (Scott G Winterton, Deseret News)


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SALT LAKE CITY — Pregnant women who have been infected with COVID-19 are 40% more likely to develop serious complications or even die, according to a new study led by a University of Utah Health obstetrician.

The nationwide study is the first to determine that a COVID-19 infection can raise the risks for common pregnancy complications, including postpartum bleeding, high blood pressure or other infections, according to Dr. Torri D. Metz, a maternal-fetal medicine specialist and associate professor of obstetrics and gynecology.

"This is why we need to make sure pregnant individuals are vaccinated," Metz said Tuesday.

She said research had already found that pregnant people have a higher risk for COVID-19 complications. Now, researchers, including Metz, have found that individuals who have been severely impacted by COVID-19 are three times more likely to develop pregnancy complications.

The study, titled "Association of SARS-CoV-2 Infection With Serious Maternal Morbidity and Mortality From Obstetric Complications" was published in the Feb. 7 edition of the Journal of the American Medical Association.

The study considered electronic medical records for over 14,000 pregnant women at 17 medical centers between March and December of 2020. Of those who were studied, 2,350 tested positive for COVID-19 during their pregnancy or within six weeks of their delivery.

The study showed that of those who contracted COVID-19, over 13% had pregnancy complications. But only 9% of those who tested negative had complications.

Those who had significant COVID-19 symptoms, not just mild, flu-like symptoms, were three times more likely to have serious pregnancy complications, including eclampsia, severe high blood pressure, kidney failure or organ damage, sepsis from infections and endometritis.

In the group of 14,000 women, there were five maternal deaths, each of those individuals were in the group that tested positive for COVID-19.

Although the infection did lead to more premature births, there was no evidence that it causes additional adverse outcomes for newborns, and only 1.2% of newborns tested positive for COVID-19 before leaving the hospital.

However, the records showed that COVID-19 infection in mothers "was significantly associated with premature birth and (newborn intensive care unit) admission."

A moderate or severe case of COVID-19 also led to a higher risk of a cesarean birth — 45.4% compared to 32.4% in those without COVID-19. Metz explained that some pregnant women with COVID-19 were too sick for the hospitals to try a vaginal birth.

There is still more research to be done on the topic, but the study said that 80% of the COVID-19 infections were found in the third trimester of a pregnancy, and so the study does not adequately evaluate the events of COVID-19 early in a pregnancy.

Additionally, since it considered data from 2020 before the approval of COVID-19 vaccines, the study does not provide any insight into the impacts of the vaccine. Metz, however, encouraged those who are pregnant or considering having a child to get vaccinated, saying new findings support the importance of vaccination.

"The complications of pregnancy we observed were mostly in people who had moderate to severe symptoms of COVID-19. ... We know from other studies that vaccination prevents the most severe symptoms of the disease. So, this is just another piece of the puzzle that should encourage pregnant people to get vaccinated," Metz said.

The study does disclose that Metz and another author in the report received personal fees or grants from Pfizer and those authors and others received donations or are associated with other health companies.

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Emily Ashcraft joined KSL.com as a reporter in 2021. She covers courts and legal affairs, as well as health, faith and religion news.

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