Sometimes when she feeds her little daughter, Amanda Harrison is overwhelmed with emotion and has to wipe away her tears of gratitude. She was lucky to be here with her baby in her arms.
Harrison was 29 weeks pregnant and was not vaccinated when she contracted COVID-19 in August. At first the symptoms were mild, but suddenly she felt that she could not breathe. She lived in Phoenix City, Alabama, was intubated and taken to a hospital in Birmingham, where doctors gave birth to baby Lake two months ahead of schedule and put Harrison on life support.
Kindal Nipper, who was born outside of Columbus, Georgia, had only a brief duel with COVID-19, but the outcome was more tragic. She was several weeks away from giving birth in July when she lost her baby, a boy she and her husband planned to name Jack.
Now Harrison and Nipper are sharing their stories as they try to convince pregnant women to get vaccinated against COVID-19 to protect themselves and their children. Their warnings came amid a sharp increase in the number of seriously ill pregnant women, resulting in 22 pregnant women dying of COVID in August, a record one month.
“We are committed to doing everything in our power to educate and protect our boy because no other family has to go through this,” Kipper said of herself and her husband.
Harrison said she will “painfully follow through” that pregnant women are being vaccinated “because it could literally save your life.”
Since the start of the pandemic, health officials have reported more than 125,000 cases and at least 161 deaths of pregnant women from COVID-19 in the United States, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And over the past few months, hospitals and doctors in hot spots of the virus have reported a sharp increase in the number of seriously ill pregnant women.
Due to the fact that only 31% of pregnant women nationwide are vaccinated, the CDC issued an urgent recommendation on September 29, in which it recommended getting vaccinated. The agency warned that COVID-19 during pregnancy could cause premature birth and other adverse outcomes, and stillbirth has been reported.
Dr. Akila Subramaniam, assistant professor of maternal and fetal medicine at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, said there was a marked increase in the number of seriously ill pregnant women at the hospital in July and August. She said a study there showed that the delta variant of COVID-19 is associated with an increased risk of serious illness in pregnant women and premature birth.
“Is it because the delta variant is more contagious, or because the delta is more serious? I don’t think we know the answer to this question, ”Subramaniam said.
When COVID-19 vaccines became available to pregnant women in their states this spring, Harrison, 36, and Nipper, 29, decided to wait. The injections did not receive final FDA approval, and pregnant women were not included in the studies that led to the emergency authorization, so the initial recommendations did not provide a full recommendation for vaccination for them. Pfizer’s drugs were formally approved in August.
The women live on opposite sides of the Alabama-Georgia line, an area that has been hit hard by the delta this summer.
While Harrison had to turn on life support, Nipper’s symptoms were more subtle. At the eighth month of pregnancy, she lost her sense of smell and had a fever. The symptoms quickly disappeared, but Jack didn’t seem to be as sick. She tried a caffeinated drink: nothing. She went to a hospital in Columbus, Georgia, to monitor the fetus, where nurses broke the news: Baby Jack is gone.
“He was supposed to be born in three weeks or less,” Nipper said. “And so that they tell you that there is no heartbeat and no movement …”
Nipper’s doctor, Timothy Villegas, said testing showed that the placenta itself was infected with the virus and showed patterns of inflammation similar to the lungs of people who died from COVID-19.
According to Villegas, the infection likely caused the child’s death, as it affected his ability to receive oxygen and nutrients. The doctor said that he has since learned about similar cases from other doctors.
“We’re at the point where everyone is starting to raise red flags,” he said.
In western Alabama, Dr. Cherie Melton, a family medicine physician specializing in obstetrics and teaching at the University of Alabama, said she and her colleagues had about half a dozen unvaccinated COVID-19 patients who lost their unborn babies to miscarriages. or stillbirth, a problem that has worsened with the spread of the delta.
“It’s absolutely heartbreaking to tell my mother that she will never be able to pick up her living child,” she said. “We’ve had to do this very often, more than I remember in the last couple of years.”
Melton said she encourages every unvaccinated pregnant woman she treats to get vaccinated, but many haven’t. She said rumors and misinformation were the problem.
“I get everything from, ‘Well, someone told me this could cause future infertility,’ to ‘This could hurt my baby,’ she said.
Nipper said she would like to ask more questions about the vaccine. “In hindsight, I know I did everything I could to give him a healthy life,” she said. “The only thing I didn’t do, and I have to carry with me, is that I didn’t get the vaccine.”
Returning home from the hospital with a healthy child, Harrison says he feels deep gratitude, mild with survivor’s guilt.
“I cry all the time. Just the little things. Feeding her or hugging my 4 year old child. Just the thought that they will have to live life without me, and this is now the reality of many people, ”said Harrison. “It was very scary and all of this could have been prevented if I had been vaccinated.”