The truth behind the rise in pregnant women being treated for Covid in ICUs

Rosa Silverman
·3 min read
According to official guidance, pregnant women do not need to shield, unless they have a serious underlying medical condition - PA
According to official guidance, pregnant women do not need to shield, unless they have a serious underlying medical condition - PA

Look up the NHS advice on pregnancy and Covid and it all sounds fairly reassuring: “There’s no evidence that pregnant women are more likely to get seriously ill from coronavirus,” runs the official line. Pregnant women have been classed as clinically vulnerable simply “as a precaution.”

New figures, however, suggest the risk of becoming seriously ill with Covid could be higher for pregnant women and new mothers than we might have initially thought. According to a report this month on Covid in critical care, one in nine women under 50 years old being treated in intensive care for coronavirus is either pregnant or has given birth within the previous six weeks.

The data, which relates to cases from September 1 to January 8 and was compiled by the Intensive Care National Audit and Research Centre (ICNARC), shows 11.7 per cent of younger women in UK critical care units with the virus were classed in one of the two categories. This represents an increase compared with the number of such women admitted to intensive care units (ICUs) with the virus up to August 31.

So, what lies behind the rise, and how worried should pregnant women be?

Dr Edward Morris, president of the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists (RCOG), suggests there are several possible reasons why pregnant women now represent an increased fraction of intensive care admissions with Covid in the ICNARC study. One of these is that the overall number of pregnant women needing critical care treatment is low, so “the impact of the increase is therefore magnified.”

He adds: “We know there is increased prevalence of the virus among younger age groups in this wave, and another factor is more women testing positive for Covid after being admitted into hospital for something else as testing has increased.”

Current evidence from the UK suggests pregnant women are at no greater risk of being infected with coronavirus, he says, and most who do become infected won’t become seriously ill.

“While the majority of pregnant women experience only mild or moderate symptoms, pregnant women who are in their third trimester of pregnancy or have pre-existing medical problems are at a higher risk of developing severe illness and are more likely to require admission to hospital compared with other pregnant women. We encourage pregnant women to pay particular attention to social distancing measures and good hygiene, especially if they are 28 weeks pregnant or more,” says Morris.

The Royal College of Midwives (RCM) meanwhile suggests one reason why a higher proportion of pregnant women and new mothers are being admitted to critical care units now could be that the threshold for admitting them may be lower. In some cases it could be “a precautionary measure,” says Dr Mary Ross-Davie, director for Scotland and the RCM lead on Covid.

She adds: “The evidence available suggests that pregnant women are admitted to ICU for relatively short periods for additional observation and support.

"Covid infection in pregnant women is also being picked up better than earlier in the pandemic through routine testing in maternity units, and more women are being diagnosed with the disease, and this also could be a part of the reason.”

According to official guidance, pregnant women do not need to shield, unless they have a serious underlying medical condition that makes this necessary; they just need to take extra care in following the guidelines.

As the NHS advice states, it may be possible for pregnant women to pass the virus to their unborn baby, but when this has happened, the babies have recovered and there’s no evidence coronavirus causes miscarriage or affects a baby’s development in the womb.

Read more: Where does the coronavirus vaccine leave pregnant women, who are advised not to have it?

Read more:​ NHS advice on pregnancy and coronavirus

Have you, or has someone you know, had coronavirus while pregnant? Tell us about your experience in the comments section below.