University of Utah doctor leads national study on COVID-19 and pregnancy

A new national study, led by a University of Utah researcher, will explore how COVID-19 and the societal reactions to the pandemic have affected pregnant women and their babies.

Dr. Torri D. Metz, an associate professor of obstetrics and gynecology, is leading the study, which will analyze medical records of up to 21,000 pregnant women. Scientists are also going to track the health of more than 1,500 expecting mothers with confirmed cases of COVID-19 for six weeks after giving birth.

The study will compare pregnant women infected with the coronavirus to pregnant women without the virus to see if they have higher rates of pregnancy-related complications, such as preterm births or cesarean deliveries. Researchers are also looking more generally at whether women having babies during the pandemic have different outcomes than women who delivered last year.

As social distancing guidelines were put in place in recent months, some people have avoided going to doctor’s offices or hospitals because they worry about catching the virus, Metz said. For instance, fewer people are getting treated for heart attacks, she said.

“We don’t think that’s because less people are having heart attacks," Metz said. “We worry that’s because less people are coming to the hospital when they have symptoms of chest pain."

Similarly, expecting mothers “may stay home when they’re having a pregnancy complication longer than they normally would, and that that could potentially lead to worse outcomes for them.”

During the pandemic, doctors have largely switched to virtual visits and aren’t able to do everything they could during an in-person visit. An expecting mother may not have a blood pressure cuff at home, and "it’s possible that we could miss that somebody’s blood pressure is elevated … and then potentially that could get worse” before they’re able to go to their OB-GYN, Metz said.

“The questions we will be addressing in this study are ones that a lot of practitioners and women who are pregnant or are considering getting pregnant are asking themselves,” Metz said. “Hopefully, this study will illuminate some of the answers so that we can better counsel women on what to expect.”

Researchers will also examine the risk of pregnant women transmitting COVID-19 to a fetus, which is unclear right now, Metz said.

“Most in utero infections … have their most profound effect when they’re in the first trimester, when the baby is basically developing all its organ systems,” she said. Only a few months into the pandemic, any expecting mothers infected with the virus in their first trimester haven’t had their babies yet, “so it’s hard for us to know at all what the effect of an early COVID infection would be on a fetal development," she said.

It appears, though, that "pregnant women don’t seem to be disproportionately affected by COVID-19 infection, meaning that they don’t appear to get very ill more often than people who aren’t pregnant,” such as with the flu, Metz said, which is “good news.”

The nationwide study Metz is leading will run through the end of the year. The work is supported by the National Institutes of Health and conducted by researchers in the Maternal-Fetal Medicine Units Network, a group of 12 U.S. clinical centers including the University of Utah Hospital. It is funded by the Eunice Kennedy Shiver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development.

Becky Jacobs is a Report for America corps member and writes about the status of women in Utah for The Salt Lake Tribune. Your donation to match our RFA grant helps keep her writing stories like this one; please consider making a tax-deductible gift of any amount today by clicking here.