Maternity wards stretched as pregnant patients arrive with Covid

Hospitals are seeing a rising number of pregnant women with Covid come through their doors as the Omicron outbreak grows – and with what health experts say are relatively lower rates of vaccination among them, there are concerns about what this means for their health.

The growing number of Covid-positive women needing care in hospital has seen at least one DHB create a separate Covid maternity unit on site. But the extra resources this requires is putting pressure on a workforce that’s already running at around a third less capacity.

Auckland District Health Board’s director of midwifery, Deborah Pittam, says the city hospital’s maternity unit has split its service and specifically set up a unit designed to care for patients who test positive.

“That makes it easier for us on a daily basis but that means we have to staff two areas, so there are challenges with that,” she said.

Pittam says her team is constantly working at “30 to 35% deficit” across its maternity services. The deficit of midwives has grown as much as 50% as staff contract Covid, or have to isolate as a result of a family member falling ill.

Last week alone saw 17 of her staff stood down, she said.

“Our biggest challenge is in the process of looking after everybody that we make sure everything happens as it should do.”

Staff from other areas of the hospital are pitching in to help where possible.

But Pittam said caring for the growing number of Covid patients is making it tough to juggle. Around 30 to 40% of those at Auckland City Hospital’s assessment and birthing units are testing positive for the virus.

She said while the vast majority of the patients coming through to the hospital’s maternity services have had at least two doses of the Covid-19 vaccine, there appears to be a delay when it comes to the booster, with just half of the women having a third dose.

University of Auckland researcher Dr Michelle Wise, who has been chairing a nationwide group of obstetricians, says data she’s obtained shows it’s a similar picture across a number of other DHBs.

“The number of pregnant women who are vaccinated is lower than the vaccination rates in the general population,” Wise said.

The health professionals are concerned about what it means for the health of the women and their unborn babies as Omicron continues to spread.

Pittam says from previous outbreaks, such as Delta, the impacts on pregnancy were significant. And while she says it’s early days still with Omicron, they were being cautious as they monitored its impact on pregnant women and their babies.

Wise says those who are pregnant are at risk of additional complications, such as pre-eclampsia, a condition that causes high blood pressure.

“You don’t have to have another underlying health condition [to be at risk of complications while pregnant],” she said. “It’s our young, healthy pregnant population who are still getting sick from Covid.”

Pittam and Wise are urging mums who are on the fence around vaccines to seek advice from their health professional.

“I would reassure pregnant people that it is safe,” Wise said. “We now have two years of data on this.”

The uncertainty of what could happen without being vaccinated is what’s driven Auckland mum-to-be Emma Moore to put aside her lifelong fear of needles to get all three jabs.

“It’s not just my life – I’m trying to look after,” she said. “It’s the baby. They aren’t old enough to look after or protect themselves, so I want to keep them as healthy as possible.”