Chicago Tribune did some important journalism this week, pointing out that in the state of Illinois, Black and Latina moms are disproportionately being affected when it comes to COVID-19 positive pregnancies. The paper reports at least 1,089 women in Illinois have had COVID-19 while pregnant. According to the Illinois Department of Public Health data, 49% were Hispanic and 23% were Black.
It's important to note that in Illinois, Latinx people make up just 14% of the population and Black people represent 15% of the total state population. These moms are way overrepresented in the COVID-19 pregnancy cases, and the health department suggests the data may even be underestimating COVID-19 pregnancies.
"COVID-19 brought its own set of issues around disparities, but also highlights issues that have been there all along," Ann Borders, an OB-GYN in the NorthShore University Health System and executive director of the Illinois Perinatal Quality Collaborative tells the Tribune.
This is not an Illinois problem. This is a problem across the country and one that, as Borders points out, does not predate the pandemic but is exacerbated by it.
Indeed, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) data covering 2011 and 2014 shows "considerable racial disparities in pregnancy-related mortality exist, with 12.4 deaths per 100,000 live births for white women compared to 40 deaths per 100,000 live births for Black women."
According to the CDC, the risk of pregnancy-related deaths for Black women was 3 to 4 times higher than those of white women before the coronavirus pandemic. And research shows non-white Hispanic mothers were more likely to receive no or poor prenatal care and more likely to give birth at hospitals with higher severe maternal morbidity rates—and this was all pre-pandemic.
According to the CDC, the pandemic made things even worse for Latina moms. Of the 8,749 pregnant women who COVID-19 hospitalization data is available for, 4,140 of the moms identify as Latina or Hispanic. This chart from the CDC says it all.
In early August, researchers found that nearly half of COVID-19 cases among pregnant people have been with Latina or Hispanic women. And a study inn Pennsylvania found that Hispanic and Black women were five times more likely to be exposed to COVID-19.
There are some limitations to the data. In both Illinois and with the CDC's nationwide data, officials are concerned that missing data (pregnant women who were not counted) and gaps in case-specific data could contribute to an overestimation or underestimation of how COVID is impacting pregnant women. As ProPublica reports, the United States is not doing a good job of keeping track of the impact of COVID-19 on pregnant women because much of the burden of tracking is on local health departments.
We don't have the whole picture, but we have enough pieces to say that systemic racism in the health care system and simply inadequate or non-existent access to healthcare disproportionately impacts Black and Latina moms, and in a pandemic that can be deadly.
The CDC wants pregnant people to protect themselves, suggesting "specific actions pregnant women can take include not skipping prenatal care appointments, limiting interactions with other people as much as possible, taking precautions to prevent getting COVID-19 when interacting with others, having at least a 30-day supply of medicines, and talking to their health care provider about how to stay healthy during the COVID-19 pandemic."
But all of that is made hard of impossible when you don't have insurance, or are an essential, hourly worker who can't afford to skip a shift, or when you have no childcare, or when your healthcare provider doesn't understand your language or your situation.
Racism is hurting mothers and babies, and we all need to hold lawmakers accountable for that. Whether you're in Illinois or another part of the U.S., you can let your representatives know that United States will be stronger when it takes care of ALL pregnant women and their babies.
This story was originally published on July 7th, 2020. It has been updated.