NEW YORK — The number of deaths among pregnant women in the United States fell in 2022, falling significantly from a six-decade high during the pandemic, new data suggest.
More than 1,200 U.S. women died during pregnancy or shortly after childbirth in 2021, according to a final tally released Thursday by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In 2022, according to preliminary agency data, there were 733 maternal deaths, although the final figure is likely to be higher.
Officials say the maternal death rate in 2022 is on track to converge to pre-pandemic levels. But that’s not great: The pre-COVID-19 rate was the highest in decades.
“From the worst to almost the worst? I wouldn’t exactly call that an achievement,” said Omari Maynard, a New Yorker whose partner died after giving birth in 2019.
The CDC counts women who die during pregnancy, during childbirth, and up to 42 days after childbirth. Excessive bleeding, blockage of blood vessels and infection are the main causes.
COVID-19 can be particularly dangerous for pregnant women, and experts believe this was the main reason for the 2021 spike. Burnt-out doctors may have increased the risk by ignoring pregnant women’s concerns, some advocates said.
In 2021, there were about 33 maternal deaths for every 100,000 live births. The last time the government recorded such a high rate was in 1964.
What happened “isn’t that hard to explain,” said Eugene Declercq, a longtime maternal mortality researcher at Boston University. “The surge was COVID-related.”
Previous government analysis concluded that a quarter of maternal deaths in 2020 and 2021 were related to COVID – meaning the entire increase in maternal deaths was due to coronavirus infections or the broader impact of the pandemic on healthcare . Pregnant women infected with the coronavirus were nearly eight times more likely to die than their uninfected peers, according to a study recently published by BMJ Global Health.
The body of pregnant women is already under strain, their heart has to pump harder. Other health issues can make their condition more vulnerable. And then on top of that: “COVID is going to make everything a lot worse,” said Dr. Elizabeth Cherot, Chief Medical and Health Officer of the March of Dimes.
It didn’t help that vaccination rates among pregnant women were disappointingly low in 2021 — especially among black women. Part of this was related to limited vaccine availability and that the CDC did not fully recommend vaccinations for pregnant women until August 2021.
“Initially, there was a lot of mistrust of the vaccine in black communities,” said Samantha Griffin, who owns a doula service that primarily serves black families in the Washington, DC area.
But there’s more to it than that, she and others added. The 2021 maternal mortality rate was nearly three times higher among black women than white women. And the maternal mortality rate for Hispanic American women increased 54% this year compared to 2020, also surpassing the mortality rate for white mothers.
More than a year into the pandemic, many doctors and nurses were feeling burned out and having less face-to-face time with patients.
Providers back then “had to make quick decisions and maybe didn’t listen to their patients as much,” Griffin said. “Women said they thought something was wrong and they weren’t heard.”
Maynard, who is 41 and lives in Brooklyn, said he and his partner experienced this in 2019.
Shamony Gibson, a healthy 30-year-old, was due to have her second child. The pregnancy was uneventful until her contractions stopped and she underwent a caesarean section.
The operation turned out to be more complicated than expected, but their son Khari was born in September. A few days later, Shamony began complaining of chest pains and shortness of breath, Maynard said. Doctors told her she just needed to relax and let her body recover from the pregnancy, he said.
More than a week after the birth, her health deteriorated and she asked to go to the hospital. Then her heart stopped and relatives called for help. The initial focus for paramedics and firefighters was whether Gibson was using illegal drugs, Maynard said, adding that she was not.
She was hospitalized and died the next day from a blood clot in her lungs. Her son was 13 days old.
“She wasn’t heard at all,” said Maynard, an artist who now speaks as a maternal health advocate.
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