Amid the healthcare disparities, the African American Community is rocked again by COVID-19. When you think things cannot worsen, COVID 19 has disrupted the birthing experience as well. The African American community has been hit harder by the virus due to the ongoing health disparities that exist due to a lack of access to adequate healthcare services. In addition to the disproportionate access to the healthcare system, it has completely changed the access to prenatal care and support systems during and after birth. This is a serious concern since many expecting African American mothers are already considered high risk mostly due to the racial/economic disparities across the nation. Several mothers have been diagnosed with high blood pressure and gestational diabetes, which could cause preterm labor, low birth weight, and even death in some cases.
Adding the additional stress and restrictions associated with the current state of the world with the ever-evolving COVID-19 virus makes matters worse. The COVID-19 virus has changed the way African American mothers’ access to healthcare, specifically, prenatal care. Before the COVID-19 virus, the expectant mothers would go to the doctor’s office for routine checks and important milestones during -their pregnancy journey. This virus has forced everyone to have virtual doctor visits, which prevent the doctor and patient’s bonding relationship. Currently, doctors see their patients virtually via telehealth appointments with the help of computers/smartphones with cameras. The number of office visits has been significantly reduced because of COVID 19 virus in order to minimize the patient’s and staff’s exposure to the virus. Aisha Wright, Attending Physician of Family Medicine with Obstetrics at Stroger Hospital, has a patient population consisting of 95% African American, uninsured, underinsured, or high-risk individuals from underserved communities. Dr. Wright is a strong and outspoken advocate for her patients and families, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The COVID-19 virus has impacted the hospital birthing experience in addition to gaining access to supportive healthcare services. In preparation for the birthing process, the mother is given a COVID-19 test (rapid test reveal results in 12 hours as oppose to 24 hours in the past). Additionally, the virus has reduced the number of people that can be in the hospital during the birth, including family members and support service professionals. In the past, patients could bring up to three people in the delivery room.
Currently, the protocol includes only one person besides the mother, and that person must stay at the hospital the entire time. The additional person must bring an overnight bag and will have to eat food at the hospital because they cannot leave. The newborn baby receives a COVID-19 test and is separated from the mother until the test results come back. After the baby is born, the initial bonding time is a critical time for Moms and babies; they usually bond skin to skin or through breastfeeding. The babies can join the mother after she gets the results from the COVID test. This has also impacted induced labor scenarios, c-sections, and natural birthing methods. The time new mothers and babies spend at the hospital has significantly been reduced as a precaution.
Similarly, more African American families have been exploring the option of having a supportive service professional like a Doula. Before the virus erupted, Doula and Breastfeeding educators could assist new Moms before and after the birth of the new baby. Now Doulas and Breastfeeding educators are not allowed because of the hospital’s strict COVID -19 guidelines. Because of this change, there is a heavy reliance on the Lactating Nurse, but she is overwhelmed and working at capacity by assisting all the new mothers. Kelly Robinson, the founder of Calm Mamas – Birthing Support services LLC, notes her clientele has dropped significantly due to the COVID-19 restrictions. As a doula, she supports Mom and Dad during the birthing process and helps parents advocate for their desired birthing outcome.
Mrs. Robinson of Calm Mama’s suggests expectant mothers should research the hospital policies, be health advocates, and investigate home births or birthing centers (for low-risk pregnancies) to have a more pleasant and safer birthing experience.
Lastly, the amount of time the doctor gets to spend with their patients has significantly decreased. According to Dr. Wright, the virus has also reduced the amount of time doctors have within the labor and delivery department. Before the COVID-19 outbreak, there were 1 to 2 attending doctors on the floor. Now families can expect only 1 attending doctor for the entire labor and delivery department to lower the chance of contracting COVID-19. This significantly reduces the chance of the expectant mothers delivering the new baby with their desired doctor, which adds even more stress to the process. Many African American patients have expressed concerns about not being able to deliver their babies with the doctor they are comfortable with.
Wright suggests expectant mothers take all safety measures very seriously. Her suggestions include prenatal vitamins, vitamin D, washing hands, wearing masks, and practicing social distancing. She also suggests discussing your birthing plan before arriving at the hospital as it relates to pain control, breastfeeding, and skin to skin bonding methods with your spouse/support person.
Theresa Horton is a freelance writer living in Chicago. Follow her on her social media @passionateresources (Instagram).