Pregnant, unvaccinated people vulnerable to severe COVID-19 outcomes, says new study

·3 min read
Calgary recreational therapist Emily Chell has no regrets about getting the COVID-19 vaccine while pregnant with her son Milo in 2021. (Emily Chell - image credit)
Calgary recreational therapist Emily Chell has no regrets about getting the COVID-19 vaccine while pregnant with her son Milo in 2021. (Emily Chell - image credit)

For Canadians who were pregnant during the pandemic, those who were immunized against COVID-19 were less vulnerable to severe outcomes than those who had not gotten a vaccination, according to new research published this week.

The research by the University of British Columbia and published by the Journal of the American Medical Association examined over 6,000 cases of COVID-19 in pregnant Canadians between March 2020 and October 2021.

"It validated for us the fact that we really, truly were seeing more serious outcomes in pregnant women compared to non-pregnant, with significantly higher rates of hospitalization and intensive care unit admission," said Dr. Deborah Money who leads UBC's CanCOVID-Preg project, which tracks COVID-19 in pregnancies across the country.

Money said she and her colleagues found that pregnant people who got COVID were more likely to have worse outcomes than infected people who weren't pregnant.

Pregnancy outcomes were worse for infected pregnant people than for those who didn't get COVID. Researchers found that pregnant people were 2.65 more likely to require hospitalization and 5.46 times more likely to be admitted to the intensive care unit than non-pregnant people.

They also found higher rates of pre-term births for women infected with COVID-19.

"So it's not just the women that are getting more ill," Money said. "There is adverse outcomes for the babies because prematurity is associated with a complex number of health outcomes for infants."

The research confirmed that people who are immunized can be infected, but that the vaccine offers important protection.

"Individuals who had very serious outcomes — so hospitalization, ICU admission — none of those individuals were vaccinated. So we're really showing that the vulnerability is in the unvaccinated women," Money said.

Alberta is among the six provinces that provided data for the study.

While pregnant Albertans had similar outcomes as those in other provinces, Money said the high per capita number of COVID cases combined with lower vaccine uptake among Alberta cases reflects trends in the province's wider population.

Money said the research also showed that some additional factors, such as older age, high blood pressure, pre-existing diabetes and being at a later stage in pregnancy, also could further increase the risk of severe outcomes.

Money added that the data also shows that pregnant women of colour are over-represented when it comes to catching COVID and having severe outcomes.

She said that highlights a need for targeted, culturally sensitive messaging around vaccination.

No regrets

In the early days of vaccine availability, pregnant women were getting mixed messages about whether or not they should be vaccinated.

The eventual recommendation was that they should, but the delay created a tricky situation for some health-care workers who were eligible for vaccination because of their job but forced to hold off because they were pregnant.

At the time, Calgary hospital recreational therapist Emily Chell was in her third trimester and was facing the choice of whether or not to get immunized.

When CBC spoke to Chell in February 2021, she was leaning toward getting immunized but hadn't been able to find a shot despite being a health-care worker.

In the end, Chell managed to get a shot at a pharmacy before giving birth and said she felt fine other than mild flu-like symptoms for about 24 hours, she told CBC Tuesday. She got a second shot while breast-feeding and later got a booster as well.

Her son, Milo Schwab, is turning one next week.

"I absolutely do not regret [getting] it one bit," Chell said.

Chell said she was especially grateful to be immunized when she and her husband got COVID-19 this past January.

"It was really bad for like two or three days and then it was a lot better. So, yeah, we were really lucky that [Milo] didn't get sick," she said.