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Having a baby during coronavirus pandemic brings stress, uncertainty for Tucson parents-to-be

Having a baby during coronavirus pandemic brings stress, uncertainty for Tucson parents-to-be

From the April's Tucson-area coronavirus coverage: 1,200+ Pima County cases, stay-home order extended series

Justine Stiffler was able to have her husband with her while delivering her son, Preston, but said it was heartbreaking not to be able to introduce the boy right away to relatives.

As the spread of COVID-19 continues to cause concern across the globe, parents-to-be are especially anxious about how the novel coronavirus will impact their pregnancy and their newborns.

For 26-year-old Sarah Stewart, being pregnant during the pandemic has been nothing short of stressful. With an Aug. 17 due date, Stewart said she is already at risk for preterm labor after her first child was born at 32 weeks and had to stay in the neonatal intensive care unit for a month.

“With all the stress going on in the world right now and the possibility of getting sick, I don’t want to go into preterm labor again,” the Tucson mom said. “I want to have a happy and healthy pregnancy.”

While she is still doing biweekly ultrasounds, Stewart said all of her primary-care appointments have been canceled until further notice. Even as many Tucson physicians are beginning to replace in-person appointments with tele-health appointments, Stewart said she hadn’t been offered that option.

“I understand they want to protect everyone from the virus, but yet they won’t allow you to see the doctor,” she said. “I feel like the doctors should at least call their patients to check up on them.”

Stewart said she will be giving birth at Northwest Medical Center but hasn’t been given any specific instructions or told what to expect when arriving at the hospital.

According to the Centers for Disease Control, it is unknown at this time if pregnant women are at greater risk of infection or experiencing more severe symptoms of COVID-19. With other illnesses, such as influenza, pregnant women are at greater risk for more severe outcomes because pregnancy causes changes in the immune system. However, there have been some initial studies out of New York showing that pregnant women without any underlying conditions are about the same as healthy adults in terms of risk of severe infection.

“All of my patients are understandably anxious about this,” said Dr. Jeffrey Johnson, a physician and OB/GYN at Northwest hospital. “What I’m recommending to them is just the normal CDC recommendations to try to limit and avoid contact, keep from touching your face or eyes, mouth, nose while you’re out, and hand-washing and social distancing.”

Even without the increased risk of more severe illness from COVID-19, some women are concerned about having to spend days in a hospital where there could be positive cases. Because of this, Tucson-area hospitals have put several new procedures and policies in place to protect them from exposure.

At both Tucson Medical Center and Northwest hospitals, all staff workers, patients and visitors are being screened for symptoms of coronavirus before they enter the building. Both hospitals have also begun limiting the number of visitors that patients can have. They are allowing one person to be with mom during delivery, but no other visitors are permitted.

Newborns will not be taken out of rooms unless there is a complication or concern for infection. To limit the number of people coming in and out of patients’ rooms, the hospitals are also calling to collect insurance information or provide food options.

“The one thing I think that’s important for them to know is that we have tried to limit the amount of people that are coming in and out of the departments,” said Dee Bien, director of Patient Care and Women & Children’s Services at TMC. “We know that pregnancy is a time where you want your family around, but given the situation and the environment that we’re in, it’s important that we do that.”

Bien said parents are encouraged to take advantage of technology like FaceTime and other apps to show off their new babies, and to encourage their family members to abide by social distancing guidelines in an effort to keep their newborns healthy.

For Justine Stiffler, 24, this was the most difficult part. Stiffler, who just gave birth to her son last week, said that while she was able to have her husband with her, it was heartbreaking not being able to introduce the new baby to her other child or family members right away.

Stiffler said they also had to change their birthing plan because of the virus. Her sister, who lives three hours away, was supposed to be in the delivery room with her and was going to stay and help take care of her toddler while she recovered.

“All those plans had to be canceled, which really messed everything up because my husband was forced to take time off of work to stay home and help me with the boys,” Stiffler said. “And since we weren’t prepared for him to take time off so soon, we aren’t getting paid, so we are stressed about money.”

Labor and delivery units have also had to take new precautions when caring for babies in the neonatal intensive care unit, especially those who have been born with respiratory conditions.

“In our NICU, our isolettes have been spaced at least 6 feet apart and we’re only allowing one parent or visitor at a time just to keep up with the guidelines in terms of social distancing,” said Jorge Falas, chief nursing officer at Northwest Hospital’s Women’s Center.

While neither TMC or Northwest has had any known coronavirus cases in their labor and delivery units, there is a concern that a mom could be carrying the virus and not have any symptoms. Both hospitals have negative-pressure rooms available in their labor and delivery units and NICUs to separate any potentially infected patients.

“There is concern for transmission of an infected mother to the baby once the baby is born,” Johnson said. “For a mom who is symptomatic and breastfeeding, it’s going to be nearly impossible to avoid transmission from the respiratory tract. There’s not really evidence that it spreads through the placenta or breast milk, but it’s going to be very, very hard to keep the baby from getting exposed to mom.”

Overall, both hospitals said they are doing everything they can to reduce the risk of exposure for all moms and infants in their units. Even so, Bien said that some pregnant women and new moms are trying so hard to avoid the hospital through the pandemic that they are putting themselves at risk for other complications.

“We have had a lot of our postpartum mommies who, once they go home, might start experiencing a headache or some other things that are indicative of warning signs after delivery, and they’re kind of prolonging coming back into the hospital for a checkup to see what’s going on,” she said. “This is a whole big change in the normal process of delivery. But we want families to know that they can definitely come in and be evaluated in the hospital. We are a safe place, and we put all kinds of mechanisms in place to keep them safe.”

Contact reporter Jasmine Demers at jdemers@tucson.com

On Twitter: @JasmineADemers

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