Mississippi has recorded 72 fetal deaths in unvaccinated pregnant women infected with the coronavirus, state health officials announced Wednesday, sounding the alarm on the virus's danger in pregnancy.
Speaking during a news conference, Mississippi State Health Officer Thomas Dobbs said those deaths had occurred since the start of the pandemic. The number, which includes only deaths that occurred past 20 weeks of gestation, "is twice the background rate of what would be expected," he said.
"That's quite a number of tragedies that, sadly, would be preventable right now," Dobbs said, referring to the availability of vaccines.
He said the state is also investigating the deaths of eight pregnant women who were infected with the virus. Those deaths occurred over approximately the past four weeks, during the delta variant-fueled surge, he said. Many underwent emergency Caesarean sections in an attempt to save their babies.
Citing those cases, Dobbs and other state health leaders urged those who are pregnant to get the shot that can protect them from the virus.
"We encourage you to please get vaccinated," said State Epidemiologist Paul Byers, noting that his daughter had recently delivered a healthy baby after rolling up her sleeve. "That's going to be the best way to ensure that you and your babies stay healthy."
Research has found that pregnant and recently pregnant women face a higher risk of becoming severely ill from covid-19, with an increased likelihood of requiring hospitalization, intensive care and use of a ventilator. Those who contract the virus in pregnancy are also at greater risk of preterm birth.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention last month began urging coronavirus vaccination in pregnant women, after studies found no increased risk of miscarriage among those who got the shots. Immunization rates are low in the expectant population, with just 24% having received at least one shot, according to the CDC.
"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," CDC Director Rochelle Walensky said in a statement last month.
In Mississippi, the overall vaccination rate has remained stubbornly low. With just under 40% fully vaccinated and 48% partially vaccinated, its vaccination rate is second-to-last in the nation.
The delta variant has hit hard in the state, where recent weeks have been the worst of the pandemic, according to data compiled by The Washington Post. The average number of infections was hovering at about 2,800, down from the 3,586 recorded Aug. 20, but still far above the numbers seen before this summer.
Almost 1,300 people were hospitalized, and the state recorded its highest number to die in a single day Monday, with 124. Per capita, it is now second in the nation in total coronavirus deaths, at 285. (New Jersey, the leader in deaths per capita, stands at 303.)
Dobbs lamented the state's standing during a live-streamed discussion Friday with Mississippi State Medical Association President Mark Horne, saying that "it doesn't have to be this way."
"In Mississippi, we're complacent about being last," Dobbs said. "Aren't we? And if you see some folks out there talking, they're saying, 'This is inevitable; people are going to die; it's not worth trying.' That is a loser mentality, right? Other people don't do this badly."
He noted that the state recorded almost 900 deaths in August, including 61 in people who were between 18 and 31 years old.
"Not a single one of them was vaccinated," Dobbs said. "I feel confident, if they had been vaccinated, every single one of those people would be with us today. It's a stark and painful truth, but it's just what reality shows."