Many pregnant women skip COVID-19 vaccine despite higher risk of death

Nakia Hubbard Heard was 23 weeks pregnant with her fourth child when she tested positive for the coronavirus during the state’s third surge in March.

The 46-year-old Inkster mother went to Beaumont Hospital, Wayne, where she was placed on a ventilator. She was then airlifted to Beaumont Hospital, Royal Oak, where she spent weeks fighting for her life and that of her unborn son, Saint.

Heard wasn’t vaccinated when she contracted the virus, but she was able to get the COVID-19 vaccine when she was at the hospital for the emergency Cesarean delivery of Saint in July, who arrived three weeks early and healthy.

“It makes so much more sense to prevent (COVID-19) than to have to deal with the consequences,” the occupational therapist said Wednesday as Michigan is in the throes of its fourth coronavirus surge, with primarily unvaccinated patients filling up hospitals. “I was one of the luckier ones, even with all the conditions and all the things that came along with my infection. I’m here and my son is here. But some women don’t make it.

“They have a lot of good data now that they didn’t have at the time when I was pregnant that proves there are no issues with the vaccinations … It just doesn’t make any sense to take a chance on you or your baby when there’s something out there that can prevent it.”

Pregnant women are getting sick and dying of COVID-19, with about 20 of them hospitalized at Beaumont Health — half of them in the ICU, said Dr. Karoline Puder, a maternal fetal medicine specialist at Beaumont Hospital, Royal Oak, who cared for Heard.

Health officials say pregnant women are at a higher risk of severe illness and death from the virus, but are less likely to get vaccinated against COVID-19 than the general public.

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As of Dec. 13, there have been 151,354 confirmed coronavirus cases among pregnant people in the U.S., including more than 25,500 hospitalizations and 249 deaths, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

‘Significant issue for pregnant women’

Puder said when the COVID-19 vaccine first came out “there was no theoretical risk to pregnant women in any trimester. But it’s not surprising pregnant women were afraid to try something new.”

However, she said COVID-19 “continues to be a significant issue for pregnant women” — a group with a vaccination rate that is significantly lower than other populations. She said pregnant women with the virus are “almost twice as likely to die as non-pregnant women of similar age.”

She said at the time Heard became ill, information about vaccination was “very, very new” but “that has changed significantly over the last nine months.” She said there is no evidence of reproductive harm from the vaccine or increased risk in fertility problems, miscarriage, early birth, birth defects or growth problems in babies.

In contrast, Puder said, pregnant women who become ill with the virus are more likely to have pre-eclampsia, early birth and increased risk of stillbirth. She said monoclonal antibody treatments are recommended for pregnant women who are not sick enough to be hospitalized.

Puder said some mothers have died postpartum and there are premature babies left without their mothers because of the pandemic. Some mothers have spent long periods of time in the ICU.

“There are certainly babies out there who never met their mothers; babies out there who did not met their mothers for months after their birth; and all of which are tragic from our perspective,” she said.

Benzie-Leelanau District Health Department registered nurse Dawn Hynds draws a dose of the Pfizer Covid-19 vaccine during a community vaccination event at Northport Public School in Northport on September 16, 2021.

The CDC issued a health advisory in late September, urging COVID-19 vaccines for anyone who is pregnant or trying to become pregnant, anyone who recently delivered a baby or is lactating.

Contracting symptomatic COVID-19 during pregnancy is associated with a two-fold risk of severe disease that leads to hospitalization in an intensive care unit and a 70% increased risk of death. Pregnant people also are at higher risk for preterm birth, still birth and health complications for the newborn.

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Yet, CDC data shows only 31% of pregnant people were vaccinated against COVID-19 as of late September. Coverage varied greatly among racial lines: About 46% of pregnant Asian Americans were fully vaccinated, but that rate dropped to 25% among those who are Hispanic/Latino and to 16% among Black Americans.

“Pregnancy can be both a special time and also a stressful time – and pregnancy during a pandemic is an added concern for families,” CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky said. “I strongly encourage those who are pregnant or considering pregnancy to talk with their health care provider about the protective benefits of the COVID-19 vaccine to keep their babies and themselves safe.”

‘I was scared’

Heard said at the end of March she became really fatigued, lost her sense of taste for a day and lost interest in eating. She started to have shorter breaths and some coughing. After a week, she was crying and tired of being sick of “this cold I had.”

“And it never really kinda sunk in that it was COVID,” she said.

Nakia Hubbard Heard, 46, of Inkster, was 23 weeks pregnant when she tested positive at Beaumont Hospital, Wayne, with COVID-19 this past March and placed on a ventilator.

The next day, she mustered enough energy to drive around to find a testing site, but none were open. She said she went to her doctor’s office, who sent her to the hospital, where she learned she was positive for the virus.

She was having fevers on and off, shortness of breath and she couldn’t wear a mask because her breathing was so bad. She was admitted to the obstetrics and gynecology floor for just over a day and then was transferred to the intensive care unit.

She said her best bet to breathe and save her and her baby was to be put on a ventilator. She was then airlifted to the Royal Oak hospital where a high-risk fetal team was located.

“I have no memory at all of that week, I was intubated initially,” she said, adding that when she awoke “I was restrained, a tube in my throat and IVs in my neck, a bright room, scared … So I’m scared, by myself, I just didn’t really know what happened.”

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She said she still had difficulty breathing and that it felt like she was breathing through a straw. She had to have a tracheotomy to help her breathe, and she had to have a feeding tube inserted.

Nakia Hubbard Heard, 46, of Inkster, was 23 weeks pregnant when she tested positive at Beaumont Hospital, Wayne, with COVID-19 this past March and placed on a ventilator.

Heard said she still had the tracheotomy in place when she came home from the hospital, and had to keep it in for about four months. She also had to have three surgeries because the virus damaged her vocal chords.

Because of her prolonged hospitalization and tracheotomy, Heard still gets winded walking long distances, talking and even reading a story to Saint.

She can’t bathe him in the tub because she said she can’t get up from the floor while holding him, or carry him and talk at the same time. Doing laundry wears her out. And Heard has body aches every morning along with memory issues.

While she’s getting stronger, Heard said she has a long way to go. She encourages those who are pregnant or considering pregnancy to get vaccinated.

Saint Dalton Rocco Heard, was born healthy three weeks early via urgent cesarian section on July 8, His mother, Nakia Hubbard Heard, 46, of Inkster, was 23 weeks pregnant when she tested positive at Beaumont Hospital, Wayne, with COVID-19 this past March and placed on a ventilator.

She said Saint is growing according to schedule, has had no major health issues and is developmentally where he should be at his age.

“He hasn’t missed a beat,” she said.

Contact Christina Hall: chall@freepress.com. Follow her on Twitter: @challreporter.

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