Illustration by Robin Carnilius [The TRiiBE]

Briana Jones is due any day now. She’s pregnant with her first child — a baby boy. What initially started out as a joyful journey for Jones and her family has turned into a cloud of uncertainty, all within the matter of weeks. 

As the COVID-19 pandemic sweeps across the globe, claiming thousands of lives, including that of a nine-month-old infant in Chicago, Jones is worried that her labor won’t be the family moment that she thought it would be. At first, she was expecting to have her boyfriend, his mother, her mother, godmother and sister in the room with her. Now, she can only have her boyfriend, the father of the child, in the labor room

“This is frustrating for me because I am a planner and I currently can’t plan,” Jones said. “Everything I’ve planned has now changed.”

The 32-year-old Aurora resident originally had done research on a birthing plan and knew she wanted certain people in the birthing room with her. Jones was counting on the support of the women in her life to get her through this experience. And now because of the novel coronavirus, which sparked stay-at-home and physical distancing orders in Illinois through April 30, she has been forced to change her plans. 

So what will life be like for Jones and her baby boy after birth? She wonders whether she’ll ever be able to take her newborn to the park or even spend time with family and go on vacations. 

Photo of Briana Jones | Courtesy of Briana Jones

“This is my first baby. I’ll never get this experience again,” Jones said. “I feel like I’m getting gypped and my experience is not going to be what I expected.”

According to an article published by Harvard Medical School in March, there is no evidence that being pregnant increases a woman’s risk for getting COVID-19, or that a pregnant woman is at risk of developing more severe symptoms than anyone else if she contracts the coronavirus. 

Also, as of March, there was no documented proof currently that pregnant women who have contracted COVID-19 are at risk of miscarriage or transmitting the virus to their baby, according to Harvard Medical School. 

“The recommendations change every day,” said Dr. Cordia Clark-White, an OBGYN at Mercy Hospital & Medical Center Chicago and Rush University Medical Center.

“At one time, the [Centers for Disease Control] was saying that everyone in public does not need to wear a face mask. And now they are saying that everyone should wear a mask in public,” Clark-White explained. “This is just one example of how things are changing day to day. The most important thing in our field since this has been going on is [women asking] how is this going to affect my pregnancy.”

White said that it has been extremely challenging to tell her patients that there is no data on pregnant women and COVID-19.

In late March, health officials announced the first death of a Chicago infant to COVID-19. Illinois Department of Public Health (IDPH) Director Dr. Ngozi Ezike said there is an investigation currently underway, but there isn’t much information about infants and coronavirus at this time. Ezike said there hadn’t ever been a COVID-19 death associated with an infant prior to the Chicago baby’s death.

“It’s very hard because we don’t have a lot of information,” White said. “At the same time, our patients are looking to us for that information.”

White said Rush University Medical Center, in Chicago’s Illinois Medical District, offers precautionary measures to care for pregnant women, such as requiring hospital employees to get their temperature taken prior to entrance. One of the symptoms for COVID-19 is a fever of 100.4 degrees Fahrenheit/38 degrees Celsius or higher.

White said Mercy Hospital & Medical Center Chicago, in the South Loop, is working to implement similar measures. 

At Rush, White said, employees receive a mask upon entrance. Mercy does require employees to wear masks, but those masks are located in a different department. Staff who work in the birthing department have to travel to another department to get masks, she said. 

“Mercy is a smaller hospital, so we are definitely working on things to keep pregnant women there safe as well,” said White. “We are definitely keeping the social distance and trying to keep the waiting areas with as few people as possible.”

According to White, most medical practices have set-up telemedicine, the distribution of health-related services and information via electronic information and telecommunication. This allows for virtual visits, instead of actual going into their prenatal appointments bi-weekly, or weekly, depending on their due date. 

Expecting mothers who have planned and nested for months are now faced with the unknown when it comes to their prenatal care and labor plans. 

At an April 8 COVID-19 press conference, IDPH’s Dr. Ezike stated:

“In some hospitals, they are allowing the partner or coach to be there for the actual labor, but not for any additional time. [We] understand the situation we are in, knowing that people coming from the outside can bring the virus into the hospital. It is not consistent. It’s not a single rule for all hospitals. There may have been some other hospitals where that even one person wasn’t allowed in the room.”

Raquel Kid, a 39-year-old woman from Chicago’s South Side, is expecting her first child in July. Kid said she’s from a small family, and she’s an only child. She initially only planned for her husband to be in the birthing room with her.

Photo of Raquel Kid | Courtesy of Raquel Kid

“I’m physically able to go out, but now with the pandemic, I have to stay in the house,” Kid said. A patient at Mercy Hospital & Medical Center, Kid said she hasn’t seen her doctor since the Illinois stay-at-home order was put in place weeks ago. 

Kid said she does go outside for walks, but even that small activity requires a mask and gloves these days. 

Although doctors and labor supporters are seeing their patients sparingly or not at all, they’re still encouraging pregnant women to constantly wash their hands, wear face masks, and practice social distancing.

Tonya Harris, a doula and certified care recovery specialist at Catholic Charities in Roseland, hasn’t seen many of her pregnant patients in almost two weeks. Roseland is a far South Side neighborhood with a history of violence, poverty and lack of access to adequate health care — including prenatal health care. 

Like others in Illinois and across the nation, doulas are encouraged to practice social distancing to avoid the spread of the coronavirus. Doulas are women birth supporters without formal obstetric training. Doulas provide support and guidance during labor. Unlike OBGYN doctors at traditional hospitals, a doula is not responsible for medical laboring support of the pregnant mom or the baby. 

According to Harris, doulas are encouraged to not have any physical contact with their pregnant moms due to social distancing, and Harris isn’t very happy about that. 

“We now have to utilize all kinds of virtual tools including visual meetings. However, because of the neighborhood, a lot of our clients don’t have access to a lot of high technology,” Harris said.

In predominantly Black Chicago neighborhoods such as Roseland, many residents are battling pre-existing conditions such as high blood pressure and diabetes. According to health experts, underlying conditions are likely to make a bout with COVID-19 more severe, leading to hospitalization or even death.

According to an April 6 press release from Mayor Lori Lightfoot and the Chicago Department of Public Health, 1,824 Black Chicagoans have been diagnosed with COVID-19. Data also shows that 847 white Chicagoans and 478 Hispanic/Latinx Chicagoans, and 126 Asian Chicagoans had been diagnosed with COVID-19. 

The deaths are even greater with 72% being African-American, although Blacks only make up just 30% of the city’s population. 

In the April 6 press release, Lightfoot stated: “This new data offers a deeply concerning glimpse into the spread of COVID-19 and is a stark reminder of the deep-seated issues which have long created disparate health impacts in communities across Chicago. While this data is extremely troubling, we are determined to lessen the impact of COVID-19 by engaging communities that have traditionally been overlooked and that have suffered disinvestment and neglect for generations. Data and science have been a critical tool in our public health response to COVID-19 from day one, and we will continue to rely on them to move resources where they are needed most. We know that our residents’ health is impacted by a number of factors, and we will also be taking a critical look at ways we can ensure that every Chicagoan has the opportunities and resources necessary to maximize their health and well-being.”

This recent data raises questions surrounding the vulnerability of Black expecting mothers in these neighborhoods during the coronavirus crisis. Previously, studies and reports already have shown that African-American mothers and pregnant women have a higher mortality rate than white women, according to the Chicago Tribune.

At a 2020 medical symposium, “Breaking Silos and Taking Action: A Discussion about Black Maternal Child Health,” a plethora of information was released showing that Black women were being mistreated during their pregnancies, and that because of reported unfair medical practices, pregnant black women and their babies have died. 

According to the Chicago Tribune, speakers at the symposium highlighted the case of a Black pregnant mother, Jasmine, who was a patient at Rush University Medical Center and died only days after delivering her baby. She was in her 20s, delivered her full-term baby at Rush and returned twice to the ER after giving birth. Throughout her pregnancy, Jasmine was experiencing frequent pain in her side and pain and numbness in her foot and calf. Jasmine, who was overweight, had visited the emergency room eight times during her pregnancy for various reasons, including pain. 

However, doctors at Rush had given her drug tests (with negative results) and she was only prescribed medicine and told to use ice packs. After her third visit to the ER, she was sent home again, where she collapsed and died. Jasmine died of pulmonary embolism 18 days after delivering her child. This was a result of an undetected blood clot that traveled  to her lungs. 

Examples like this raise concerns in Black women who are currently pregnant during COVID-19. Will Black women receive proper prenatal care during this pandemic? Will Chicago’s hospitals be able to accommodate the new Black lives being birthed into our city? 

“I’ve dedicated my entire medical career as an obstetrician-gynecologist to make sure that young Black pregnant women receive the medical care they need for them and their babies,” said Dr. White. “Black pregnant women deserve fair treatment from doctors and hospitals. Their lives and their babies’ lives depend on it.”