In late February, the Centers for Disease Control released its 2020 maternal mortality data, and the results were sobering. The maternal mortality rate increased by 14% between 2019 and 2020, with 861 mothers losing their lives in 2020 alone.
A disproportionate number of these deaths, as in years past, were among black women. Predictably, outlets like the New York Times got away with the data, blaming in part – what else? — Covid for this increase, despite the fact that the CDC report says no such thing.
I have no doubt that Covid was a cause (or related cause) of the tragic and premature death of some pregnant women in 2020, especially if other comorbidities were present. We all certainly remember seeing several of these reports. As someone who was pregnant for most of 2021, I found these stories particularly tragic and disturbing.
But it is precisely because I have been pregnant for most of 2021 that I am aware of another factor that may have led to an increase in maternal mortality in 2020. This one has not sufficiently been mentioned. This is the role of government and the health care system answer to covid.
We already know Covid policies have caused additional deaths
“An insurance company reported a 40% increase in mortality rates during the third quarter of 2021 compared to pre-pandemic rates, which is the highest rate the company has ever experienced”, Epoch Times reports.
Of course, not all of these deaths are due to Covid. As psychiatrist and bioethicist Dr Aaron Kheriaty points out in the same article, drug overdose deaths have skyrocketed during government-mandated shutdowns. A 2020 article from the Journal of the American Medical Association confirms that a third of “excess deaths” reported between March 1 and August 1 of that year were not linked to Covid infection, but could have been caused by pandemic responses.
“Some people who never had the virus may have died because of the disruption caused by the pandemic,” noted Dr. Steven H. Woolf, lead author of the study. “These include people with acute emergencies, chronic illnesses like diabetes that haven’t been properly treated, or emotional crises that have led to overdoses or suicides.”
Additionally, the disastrous results of pandemic-related disruptions to routine health care (such as cancer screenings) may not yet have materialized. Case in point: A 2020 study published in JCO Clinical Cancer Informatics noted that, compared to data from early 2019, “cancer screenings [in early 2020] dropped significantly, with breast cancer screenings dropping -89.2% and colorectal cancer screenings dropping -84.5%.
The study authors conclude that these trends “suggest a significant decrease in all cancer-related patient encounters as a result of the pandemic. possibility of a future increase in the number of patients with advanced cancer seen initially(emphasis added).
“Covid” care failures also hurt pregnant moms
To its credit, the NYT article admitted that some of the 861 maternal deaths in 2020 reported by the CDC could be attributable to “pandemic-related disruptions.” This certainly comes much closer to the full truth behind the increase in maternal mortality in 2020.
Like other routine care, maternal care has also been disrupted by our government’s response to Covid. Unfortunately, the most vulnerable among us are particularly reaping what has been sown by overzealous pandemic policies. Again, as someone who has been pregnant for most of 2021, I know something about this.
My own encounter with “pandemic-related disruptions” to maternal care began when I first found out I was pregnant in early 2021. I needed confirmatory HCG and progesterone blood tests so that my endocrinologist could make sure that the levels of these vital hormones (literally) were rising appropriately.
Since I had a miscarriage and had below ideal progesterone levels in the past, it was crucial that my provider know my progesterone level as soon as possible, so she could prescribe a progesterone supplement if needed to support pregnancy. When I called the local lab to schedule a blood test, I was informed that I could not bring my two older children with me; it was against their Covid policy.
Like a lot of mothers at that time, I didn’t have a babysitter I could call on a dime, so I asked, “Well, what do you say to mothers who need labs drawn who don’t have childcare?”
“Ummm, I don’t know,” came the reply. I hung up, frustrated and worried that this policy would mean I couldn’t get my much-needed blood test as soon as possible.
Luckily my husband was able to rearrange his work schedule a few days later so I could get an appointment while he watched our older children. But I wondered what would happen to a woman in the same situation (and her unborn child) who couldn’t make the custody arrangements to get the necessary labs and treatments.
And it didn’t stop there.
Making moms pay double for health care
For every prenatal lab or appointment during this pregnancy, I first had to provide childcare for my 2 and 4 year olds, as Covid policy prohibited children from care visits. Even a young mother with a relatively simple pregnancy can expect to attend a minimum of 10 appointments during her pregnancy. If you add complications or additional screenings, that number could very well double.
This meant that during my recent pregnancy, I had paid a lot money for babysitters so I could get the care I needed, to make sure my pregnancy was going as it should and there was no regular monitoring from red flag providers which could cause problems for mothers and babies – things like high blood pressure, rapid weight gain and racing heartbeat. Proper monitoring of these complications can prevent many of the leading causes of maternal death in the United States. This is, after all, the reason for repeat visits throughout a pregnancy: catching one of these problems as early as possible can mean the difference between life and death for a mother and her baby.
Although it took a lot of logistical headaches (good childcare is hard to come by during good times, and Covid has made it nearly impossible), I was immensely lucky to at least be able to afford it financially – but I couldn’t help but wonder what would happen to the mother who couldn’t find or pay for child care so often.
Would she just have to miss appointments, which could lead to critical red flags like high blood pressure, bloating, or sudden excessive weight gain? This was undoubtedly the case for at least some mothers during the lockdowns, especially those who lacked strong social support systems. And for the mother who gives birth with high blood pressure that should have been detected during a routine prenatal appointment, it could mean death.
I saw a mother being denied care
It turns out that I didn’t have to wonder what would happen to a woman who couldn’t arrange childcare before her appointment: I saw it happen before my own eyes. I saw a newly pregnant mother being refused care at what was supposed to be her admission appointment, simply because she dared to bring her two young children with her to the office.
The unsympathetic woman behind the desk informed the young mother: “You should have been told when making the appointment that no older children could come with you.”
Now, at the end of my pregnancy, I had enough, and so did another new mom in the waiting room with me. We both spoke up saying that this policy was preventing mothers from getting health care.
When our pleas fell on deaf ears, we told the young mother that we would be happy to sit there in the waiting room and watch her children, so that she could get to her appointment. Alas, another insane Covid policy prevented this: no one but patients was allowed in the waiting room.
Oh, husbands or partners could sit in their car and be “buzzed” for dates once a woman was back in a clinic room, but kids were unwanted people in the doctor’s office. Eventually, the pissed off young mum called her husband from work to pick up their kids. What, I wondered, would a single mother have done?
With the CDC’s 2020 report in hand, I don’t think we have to wonder what happened to these women: They fell through the cracks even further than usual, and so did their children.
Grace Emily Stark is a freelance writer with work published in multiple outlets, and she is the editor of Natural Womanhood. Grace is also currently a Ramsey Institute Fellow at the Center for Bioethics and Culture and a former recipient of a Novak Alumni Fund Journalism Fellowship. Follow her writings at GraceEmilyStark.com.