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Maternal Mortality Jumped During Pandemic, With Black and Hispanic Mothers Bearing Brunt, Study Finds

By Kelly Blake

The mortality rate for Americans who were pregnant or just gave birth outpaced that of the overall population in the first nine months of the COVID-19 pandemic, according to federal data, and now a new analysis from the University of Maryland and Boston University has found that the rise disproportionately impacted Black and non-white Hispanic mothers.

Marie Thoma in the UMD School of Public Health and Eugene Declercq in the BU School of Public Health compared maternal mortality data from the National Center for Health Statistics from 2018-March 2020, when the pandemic began, to April-December 2020. Their research letter, published today in JAMA Network Open, showed large increases in maternal death (33%) and postpartum deaths between 42 days and one year after the end of pregnancy (41%).

Those numbers suggested that the pandemic exacerbated existing disparities, causing an already-high rate for Black women to jump 40%. It also created new disparities, as deaths among Hispanic women skyrocketed 74.2%; they typically have maternal mortality rates more similar to non-Hispanic white women.

COVID-19 was listed as a secondary cause of death in 14.9% of maternal deaths in the last nine months of 2020, with it being a contributing factor for 32% of Hispanic, 12.9% of Black and 7% of non-Hispanic white women giving birth.

In the researchers’ analysis of causes of maternal death, the largest increases were attributed to conditions directly related to COVID-19 (respiratory or viral infection) or conditions made worse by COVID-19 infection, such as diabetes or cardiovascular disease. It is also possible that interruptions to the health care system might have led to delayed prenatal care and caused risk factors for pregnancy complications to go undetected, they said.

“We need more detailed data on the specific causes of maternal deaths overall and those associated with COVID-19,” said Thoma, an assistant professor of family science. “Potentially we could see improvements in 2021 due to the rollout of vaccines, as well as the extension of postpartum care provided for Medicaid recipients as part of the American Rescue Act of 2021 in some states. We’re going to continue to examine this.”

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