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Pregnant women face new challenges during COVID-19 outbreak

Most hospitals now allow only 1 person in birthing, postpartum patient room

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Alexa Cunningham of Harvard said even she, an expectant mother, didn’t take the COVID-19 coronavirus seriously at first.

She said her fellow co-workers at Harvard Junior High School, where she teaches, were saying that she shouldn’t come to work as Illinois schools were still considering shutting down – concerns that she initially brushed off, telling her co-workers that she’s fine.

With ordered closures from Gov. JB Pritzker, Cunningham said her first thought was whether her baby shower was going to be cancelled.

“And as time went on, that became the least of my problems,” Cunningham said.

Hospitals around Northern Illinois are putting strict no-visitor policies in place during the COVID-19 outbreak, and that includes labor and delivery units. In most cases, expectant mothers can only have their spouse or one support person with them, meaning other children and grandparents will have to wait to meet the newest addition to the family.

Northwestern Medicine, which includes Kishwaukee Hospital in DeKalb, Delnor Hospital in Geneva, Central DuPage Hospital in Winfield and Huntley Hospital in Huntley, on Tuesday announced that no visitors are allowed in both inpatient and outpatient units, with the exception of pediatrics, neonatal intensive care unit and birthing rooms.

The biggest change that pregnant women will experience is only one person is allowed to be with them before, during and after delivery.

"People can be asymptomatic [for the coronavirus] for quite a few days before developing symptoms, so they could spread the virus before they know they're ill," said Dr. Lori Hardy, OB/GYN at Northwestern Medicine Central DuPage Hospital and Delnor Hospital.

Mary Shilkaitis, chief operating officer for Rush Copley Medical Center, said the Aurora hospital also has similar visitor restrictions in place for expectant mothers as Northwestern Medicine. In light of those more stringent guidelines, she said, the hospital has been encouraging more use of video calls so first-time grandparents, for example, can still feel invited into those beautiful moments.

"So while it is different, we’re doing our best to invite them in in other ways,” Shilkaitis said.

Hardy said she has not had a pregnant patient test positive for COVID-19, but explained that the mother and baby would have to be separated if that were to happen.

"The recommendation is to keep them separated until the mom is cleared, but I have not had that happen yet. Not every pregnant woman gets a test when she's admitted for delivery," she said. "Pregnant women are more at-risk for respiratory viruses because their immune systems are less strong so their bodies don't reject the baby."

Hardy said that pregnant women are still able to get c-sections, and there is no change to prenatal care in her physician group as most patients, especially those in the later stages of pregnancy, need to be seen in-person so doctors can hear the baby's heartbeat and take the mother's blood pressure.

But she's seeing an increase in anxiety among her patients, because the new parents are nervous about what they should be doing when they return home.

"People are feeling a little isolated, and pediatricians are recommending [new parents] restrict visitors at home after the baby comes," she explained. "Current studies we've seen, and there aren't many because [COVID-19] is so new, don't show that the virus is transmitted to the baby in utero. It can be transmitted to the baby by close contact after birth."

Cunningham is 33 weeks pregnant, and with her baby due May 10, she said the plan is to deliver her firstborn at Northwestern Medicine Huntley Hospital. She said her husband can still attend doctor's appointments with her, and the plan is for her husband to be in the delivery room – but she trusts her doctor and understands why the visitor restrictions are in place.

However, Cunningham said, she hopes her husband will still be able to stay in the room with her by the time the baby comes.

“The thought of going through pregnancy for nine months and having to deliver a baby alone is terrifying,” Cunningham said.

Kelsey Villalobos of Plano is about 34 weeks pregnant and plans on having her baby delivered at Rush Copley Medical Center in Aurora. She said COVID-19-related concerns have taken away a lot of excitement of her first pregnancy.

Never mind the baby shower that was canceled for everyone's health, including the baby's, Villalobos said. There are new worries to consider, she said, like whether she'll be able to get baby formula if she's not able to breastfeed, whether she'll be able to get enough diapers, or if she'll be able to get everything else the baby needs by the time he or she is born.

“It definitely keeps me up at night now,” Villalobos said.

Cunningham said she has felt a little guilt lately for being so concerned about her and the baby's well-being amid the outbreak – especially since, all things considered, she is healthy. She said the extra precautions for hospital visitors make sense, but it doesn’t make it any easier for her and her husband, who have been trying to have a baby for a long time.

"It feels [like we're] being robbed of these special moments because the COVID19 crisis happens to be going on right now,” Cunningham said.

Villalobos understands that people are dying due to the coronavirus and said she's lucky that she can still work from home. However, she said, it doesn't help whenever people try to dismiss her concerns as an expectant mother.

“We’re just scared, and just be a little bit mindful of how you speak to pregnant women at this time," Villalobos said.

Cunningham said she is hopeful that relatives and friends – who have been nothing but supportive during this time of added uncertainty, she said – are able to come around to visit after the baby is born without the added COVID-19 infection risk. She urges everyone to keep following guidelines given by health professionals, like social distancing and washing hands, so that the virus hopefully can run its course faster.

“Because if this virus is still out there like it is now, [those visits are] not going to happen,” Cunningham said.

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