While U.S. death rates increased overall by 16% in 2020, for pregnant and early postpartum women it was officially even higher, at 18%, according to U.S. National Center for Health Statistics data.
Yet, that's not the whole picture: Even higher increases were seen among Black and Hispanic women.
When comparing maternal death data from 2018 to March 2020, when the pandemic began, to April through December 2020, the researchers found large spikes in maternal death -- about 33% in maternal deaths and about 41% in late maternal deaths.
"The increase was really driven by deaths after the start of the pandemic, which are higher than what we see for overall excess mortality in 2020," said study co-author Marie Thoma, an assistant professor of family science at the University of Maryland School of Public Health. She spoke in a university news release.
The team also found evidence new disparities, including a 40% increase in already high rates for Black women and a 74% increase among formerly lower rates in Hispanic women.
"For the first time in more than a decade, the maternal mortality rate for Hispanic women during the pandemic was higher than that for non-Hispanic white women, a shift that may be related to COVID and deserves greater attention moving forward," said co-author Eugene Declercq, a professor of community health sciences at Boston University's School of Public Health.
In fact, COVID was listed as a secondary cause of death in almost 15% of maternal deaths in the last nine months of 2020, the study found. It was a contributing factor in 32% of Hispanic, nearly 13% of Black, and 7% of white women giving birth.
Most of the increases were attributed to conditions related to COVID-19, including respiratory or viral infection, or to conditions that were worsened by the virus, including diabetes and heart disease. The authors said delayed prenatal care during the pandemic may have also led to risk factors not being detected.
"We need more detailed data on the specific causes of maternal deaths overall and those associated with COVID-19," Thoma said. "Potentially, we could see improvements in 2021 due to the rollout of vaccines, as well as the extension of postpartum care provided for Medicaid recipients as part of the American Rescue Act of 2021 in some states. We're going to continue to examine this."
The findings were published June 28 in a research letter in JAMA Network Open.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has more on maternal deaths.
SOURCE: University of Maryland, news release, June 28, 2022
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