Despite the persistent pleas by public health officials to get vaccinated as coronavirus infections continue to surge, a staggeringly low number of pregnant people have been vaccinated against the virus nationwide.
Just 25% of pregnant people in the United States between the ages of 18 and 49 are currently vaccinated with at least one dose, according to data through Sept. 11 compiled by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The decision to not get vaccinated has resulted in a growing number of pregnant people ending up in intensive care wards, many severely ill with COVID-19. This worrisome uptick has been particularly evident in Mississippi, where state health officials have been sounding the alarm not only about the influx of fetal and maternal deaths, but also about several reports of pregnant women being turned away from getting the shot.
"Some of the patients had reported to us that they had gone to be vaccinated, and were turned away because they were pregnant. Those were people who were just sharing their experiences at pharmacies and other areas around the state," Dr. Michelle Owens, a maternal-fetal medicine specialist at University of Mississippi Medical Center, told ABC News.
Owens, alongside other state health officials, reported this week that not all of their patients had been vaccine-hesitant, but instead were turned down after disclosing that they were expecting.
"People are kind of adverse to pregnant patients when they come in. They're hesitant to give pregnant patients medications, and certainly, vaccinations kind of fall into that," said Dr. Marty Tucker, chair of obstetrics and gynecology at UMMC, during a press conference on Thursday.
In light of the concerning reports, State Health Officer Dr. Thomas Dobbs issued a standing order last week for women to receive COVID-19 vaccines during pregnancy, "to give the pharmacy some reassurance for the places that it's OK and recommended for pregnant women to get immunized at any stage in pregnancy."
Owens added that health officials and physicians were all working together "to help reduce barriers to vaccination for pregnant women, and we just really tried to amplify this information so that wherever a pregnant person goes in order to receive care or to receive a vaccine that they are welcomed with open arms and that they receive that vaccine."
In Mississippi, 72 patients have experienced late pregnancy loss and 15 pregnant women have succumbed to the virus, more than half of whom have died since the end of July. None of the pregnant women who died was fully vaccinated, and the majority were overweight, according to Dobbs.
"There are NICUs all over this country that are filling up with babies who will not get to know their moms, and that's devastating. There are families who are losing their matriarchs, and then, there are women who have been infected by this virus who won't ever be the same," Owens said.
Since the onset of the pandemic, more than 21,000 pregnant people have been hospitalized nationwide, and at least 155 have died as result of COVID-19, according to federal data. Additionally, there have been at least 266 pregnancy losses nationwide, and approximately 10.3% of patients have had to deliver prematurely.
"When we lose a mom, especially something that could be prevented, it is a tragedy. It does not discriminate, we see it in people with and without co-morbidities. We see it in people as young as 23 years old, so it is a bad actor across the board," Tucker said.
Earlier in the pandemic, pregnant women at UMMC were not becoming as severely ill with COVID-19, but following the spread of the delta variant, Owens said, it became evident patients were becoming severely ill and deteriorating more quickly.
"We are seeing women, who may not have other co-morbid conditions, being affected at an earlier gestational age. Most of the people who we're seeing now, are affected in the middle of their pregnancy, and they have a much more aggressive form of the disease," Owens said. "The next thing you know, they end up progressing very quickly to need intubation."
Pregnant people are at an increased risk for severe illness from COVID-19 when compared to non-pregnant people, according to the CDC. In addition, they are also at increased risk for preterm birth and other poor pregnancy outcomes.
The CDC and other leading health organizations, including the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists and the Society for Maternal-Fetal Medicine, have issued guidelines calling on all pregnant people to get vaccinated against COVID-19.
"CDC encourages all pregnant people or people who are thinking about becoming pregnant and those breastfeeding to get vaccinated to protect themselves from COVID-19," CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky said in a statement about the updated guidance last month. "The vaccines are safe and effective, and it has never been more urgent to increase vaccinations as we face the highly transmissible Delta variant and see severe outcomes from COVID-19 among unvaccinated pregnant people."
The updated guidance from the CDC was based on further research that found pregnant people can receive an mRNA vaccine with no increased risk to themselves or their babies.
"[It] is really the most important thing to give pregnant women an opportunity to still be able to live to fight another day," Owens said. "It's really imperative that women get the good information to know that the COVID vaccine is safe, approved and recommended, and that it makes a big difference in whether or not a patient has severe disease, or potentially, could die."