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Just 23% of people who are pregnant in the U.S. have received at least one shot of the COVID-19 vaccine. Today, the CDC is doubling down on the recommendation that those who are pregnant get vaccinated. That's based on new findings that further support the vaccine's safety and effectiveness during pregnancy. This comes as doctors around the U.S. are dealing with an alarming uptick in COVID patients who are pregnant and getting hospitalized. Ashley Lopez of member station KUT in Austin reports.
ASHLEY LOPEZ, BYLINE: Since the pandemic started, Dr. Alison Cahill has been working with mostly pregnant women who are sick with COVID-19. A little while ago, she treated an unvaccinated woman who came into the hospital with shortness of breath. Within 24 hours, things got much worse, and she needed a tremendous amount of oxygen to stay alive.
ALISON CAHILL: She was pregnant, in her mid-trimester. So if she had needed to be delivered, she would have had an extremely preterm baby with a high risk of having lifelong disability or even death.
LOPEZ: Cahill is a maternal fetal medicine specialist at the Dell Medical School at UT Austin. She says within two days, the woman was intubated and then put on a ventilator. Eventually, she needed a machine to completely bypass her lungs and oxygenate her blood for her. Cahill says she was hooked up to all these machines for several weeks.
CAHILL: She was eventually able to come off all of those things. She miraculously did not require a preterm delivery, and after 2.5 months in the hospital, was able to go home.
LOPEZ: Fortunately, the baby was born healthy. But the woman was sent home with likely a lifetime of disabilities. Cahill says this all could have been prevented if the woman had gotten vaccinated.
CAHILL: I think that it's just an incredible opportunity that we have in the United States, and everybody should avail themselves to this tremendous vaccine to prevent those types of things happening to people. It's really tragic.
LOPEZ: This is why two leading medical organizations are urging that all pregnant people get the COVID vaccine. The CDC already recommended the vaccine for pregnant women. And new data show MRNA vaccines early in a pregnancy do not create an increased risk for miscarriage. It's also safe later in a pregnancy. Dr. Jessica Ehrig, the obstetrics chief at Baylor Scott & White Medical Center in Texas, says she's seeing a significant increase in the number of unvaccinated pregnant women hospitalized, intubated and dying. And their babies are at risk, too.
JESSICA EHRIG: Those complications include preterm birth and prematurity, increased risk of preeclampsia for these moms, which can require preterm delivery and unfortunately also increase the risk of stillbirth.
LOPEZ: Dr. Mark Turrentine, an obstetrics professor at Baylor College of Medicine, says it's a dangerous situation when a pregnant woman gets a symptomatic case of COVID.
MARK TURRENTINE: There's a threefold increase of intensive care unit admissions, 2.5-fold increased risk of being put on mechanical ventilation or bypass support. And there's even, you know, a little over a 1.5-increased-fold risk of death.
LOPEZ: This is another reason getting vaccination rates up is critical. And in some ways, pregnant people are catching up to other populations. It wasn't until April that U.S. officials OK'd vaccines for pregnant women.
TURRENTINE: So it's kind of a perfect storm situation. We have a highly infectious variant of COVID-19 virus in a group of individuals that - the majority are not immunized.
LOPEZ: Turrentine says it's important for doctors to stress for pregnant women that the benefits of getting vaccinated far outweigh any kind of risk. He says the costs of them not getting vaccinated are just too high.
TURRENTINE: I mean, I've seen some die. And, you know, you go into this business as an obstetrician, gynecologist, because patients are young, and they're healthy, and most of the time you have great outcomes.
LOPEZ: But Turrentine says he hopes that pregnant people who are on the fence about getting vaccinated roll up their sleeves and finally get their shots.
For NPR News, I'm Ashley Lopez in Austin.
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