Texas mom who transmitted COVID-19 to her unborn baby girl waited 20 days to cradle her daughter for the first time

Adrianna Rodriguez, USA TODAY

Wendy Figueroa turned over on her bed to look at the empty crib and began to cry. She cried every night for 20 days straight after giving birth to her daughter, Alexa.

Her newborn remained at Parkland Hospital in Dallas, fighting off a SARS-CoV-2 infection her mother transmitted to her while she was in the womb – one of the first such cases to be recorded in the United States.

Wendy was admitted to the hospital with a fever, headache and gastrointestinal symptoms April 30, and tested positive for COVID-19. Two days later, baby Alexa was born.

“They showed her to me from a distance and then took her away,” she said. “It’s hard to carry a baby for nine months and when they’re born, you can’t even cradle them … It’s hard for a mother.”

Alexa Figueroa
Alexa Figueroa

Twenty-four hours after Alexa was born, she also tested positive for COVID-19. Doctors confirmed her diagnosis the next day with a second test.

Their case was published July 10 in The Pediatric Infectious Disease Journal. Dr. Amanda Evans, a pediatric infectious diseases expert at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, who oversaw the case study, said the virus was detected in the mother’s placenta, leading experts to believe Alexa was infected before she was born.

“Even if the baby had been exposed to mom’s secretions or bodily fluids on the way out of the birth canal, that likely would not have affected the placental tissue,” she said.

Alexa began presenting symptoms – a fever and some trouble breathing – within 24 hours after she was born, which further contributes to the argument that she may have been infected in the womb and not during birth, as studies suggest the earliest babies may present COVID-19 symptoms is about 48 hours after infection, Evans said.

Dr. Mambarambath Jaleel, a neonatal doctor at UT Southwestern and medical director of the neonatal intensive care unit at Parkland Hospital, also ruled out transmission via respiratory droplets because Alexa was immediately separated from her mother at birth.

Although Alexa was born premature at about 35 weeks and briefly required oxygen, she recovered from the virus without any complications, Jaleel said.

However, Wendy didn’t take her baby home until 20 days after she was born. She spent six days in the hospital video calling staff every three and a half hours to watch Alexa feed on her bottle.

“Seeing her through a camera, it’s not the same,” she said. “I would cry watching my little girl through the camera because I would say, ‘I can’t have my little girl.’”

When Wendy was discharged from the hospital, she spent another 14 days at home in quarantine before she was able to bring Alexa home. While she didn’t receive a negative COVID-19 test, doctors believed Alexa was no longer shedding the virus.

“She didn’t need any additional supportive care in the intensive care unit,” Jaleel said. “She was healthy, stable, ready to go home to meet her mother.”

Wendy’s husband, her two daughters and her son were eager to see Alexa, as no one was allowed to visit her at the hospital. Wendy couldn’t put into words the happiness she felt when she finally got the call to pick up her baby girl.

CDC study: Pregnant women with COVID-19 are 5 times more likely to be hospitalized

Wendy Figueroa and her daughter, Alexa.
Wendy Figueroa and her daughter, Alexa.

It was one of the hardest experiences of her life. She never expected her pregnancy to take such a turn, especially because she left the house only for doctor visits, always wore a mask and none of her family members tested positive for the virus.

“That’s why I want to tell everyone who’s pregnant to take care of themselves, try to take care as much as you can, because it’s so difficult,” she said.

Jaleel said it's rare for newborns to become infected with the virus. According to the doctor, only six babies have tested positive for COVID-19 at Parkland Hospital out of the 128 mothers who contracted the infection at some point during their pregnancy. He added that the babies recovered without any complications.

However, he said pregnant women are considered immunocompromised and have a higher risk of contracting COVID-19. A study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, published in June, found that pregnant women were five times more likely to be hospitalized from COVID-19.

"It's a very infectious virus and gets transmitted very rapidly," he said. "Try to avoid contact with people as much as possible, especially in the last few weeks of pregnancy."

Follow Adrianna Rodriguez on Twitter: @AdriannaUSAT.

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: COVID: Dallas mom transmits coronavirus to unborn baby in the womb