Updated Oct 19, 2022 - Health

COVID played a role in 1 in 4 maternal deaths, federal watchdog says

U.S. maternal death rates, by race/ethnicity
Data: U.S. Government Accountability Office analysis of CDC and NCHS data; Note: Maternal deaths are those which occur while pregnant or within 42 days of being pregnant; Chart: Axios Visuals

COVID-19 contributed to a quarter of maternal deaths in the first two years of the pandemic, with Black pregnant women experiencing a mortality rate nearly three times higher than their white peers, according to an oversight report to Congress released on Wednesday.

The big picture: While maternal mortality rates in the U.S. were already higher than in other similarly wealthy countries pre-COVID, researchers found the pandemic continues to aggravate the factors driving up deaths from pregnancy — potentially leading to a worsening crisis.

Details: The findings from the Government Accountability Office, a nonpartisan federal watchdog, used CDC data on births and deaths in the U.S., including maternal deaths in 2020 and 2021 where COVID was a contributing cause.

  • The CDC has found COVID increases the risk of delivering a stillborn baby and that people who are pregnant are more likely to have severe illness from the virus than those who aren’t.
  • In a separate CDC analysis from January 2020 to December 2021, pregnant women were five times more likely to be admitted to an ICU than non-pregnant women.

Zoom in: Officials across federal health agencies, including CDC, said in the GAO report the pandemic caused reductions in services, such as public transportation, that can affect Black and Hispanic women more acutely than other groups.

  • It also worsened childcare challenges at a time when Hispanic women were more likely to be essential workers and unable to work from home.
  • Other unnamed stakeholders in the GAO analysis shared how pregnant women were driving to places with free internet to access telehealth from their car.

By the numbers: Total maternal deaths in 2021 (1,178) were 1.8 times higher than in 2018 (658), according to Wednesday’s report.

  • From 2018 to 2021, the Black maternal mortality rate nearly doubled from 37.3 deaths per 100,000 live births to 68.9, per the report.
  • While Latinas previously had a lower maternal mortality rate than white women in 2019, that changed in 2021 as the death rate climbed for Hispanics.

What they’re saying: Oversight Committee and Black Maternal Health Caucus leaders said Wednesday in a news release that the report highlights the urgency needed to find solutions, “because our mamas can’t wait,” said Rep. Alma Adams, co-chair of the caucus.

Go deeper: Long COVID is still disabling millions of Americans

Go deeper