A closeup of a woman holding her pregnant belly
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New CDC Report Shows Maternal Deaths Rose Sharply In The First Year Of The Pandemic

The increase fell disproportionately on Black and Hispanic women.

In the past two years, every facet of life has been affected by the pandemic, from hospitals, to supply chains, to public education. Now, a new report from the CDC has found that maternal mortality rates rose sharply in 2020 — 23.9 deaths per 100,000, up from from 20.1 in 2019. While the uptick occurred among all racial demographics studied, Black and Hispanic women were hardest hit, particularly among women over 40.

The data comes from the National Vital Statistics system which, like the World Health Organization (WHO) defines maternal mortality as “the death of a woman while pregnant or within 42 days of termination of pregnancy, irrespective of the duration and the site of the pregnancy, from any cause related to or aggravated by the pregnancy or its management, but not from accidental or incidental causes.” In other words, if a woman is hit by a car a month postpartum, that doesn’t count as a maternal death, but a heart attack would, since pregnancy could reasonably have affected any part of her body including her heart.

The rise in this grim number — from 754 deaths in 2019 to 861 in 2020 — is statistically unremarkable (though, certainly, no less tragic for those who have lost loved ones) among white women. Hispanic women — who have trended a bit lower than their white peers in the past — have reached near parity with their white peers. Black women, who have historically been disproportionately affected by maternal mortality rates, saw a sharp increase, accounting for a third of pregnant women and new mothers who died in 2020 despite being only about 13% of the population. Women 40 and older — regardless of racial background — are at a much higher risk.

While these statistics represent maternal mortality during the Covid-19 pandemic, the raw data does not specify whether deaths were a direct result of the virus, though the CDC had previously found that a Covid-19 diagnosis during pregnancy increases the risk of death by 70% in symptomatic patients. Complementary data from the agency also shows that, as of December 2021 (a period not covered in this report), more than 40% of Covid deaths in pregnant people — accounting for 102 deaths — occurred during the Delta wave (August through October 2021). This report, therefore, which only covers the first year of the pandemic, may be the tip of the iceberg.

The CDC notes that as of January 2022, only about 40% of pregnant people have been fully vaccinated against Covid-19, despite pleas from the agency, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, American College of Nurse Midwives, the Society for Maternal-Fetal Medicine, and many other healthcare organizations. In December 2021, Dr. Rochelle Wolensky, addressing the affect of Covid-19 on pregnant people described the death toll as “shocking,” telling ABC News, “I can tell you, when I hear about a pregnant woman in the community who is not vaccinated, I personally pick up the phone and talk to them.”