I found out that I was pregnant in the summer of 2020 when most of the country was still in pandemic lockdown and racial justice protesters righteously filled the streets to exclaim that Black lives matter. It was a summer of nationwide anxiety and reckoning that touched everyone in different ways.
I looked down at two blue lines telling me I was pregnant as Beyoncé’s “Black Parade” played in the background. Without taking a moment to process my new reality, I ran to tell my husband the news. Even amid racial unrest and a deadly global pandemic, I simultaneously felt so much calm and excitement to bring a baby into the world. I had already grappled with what raising a Black child in America would mean, and have come to understand the importance of raising a generation of young people who will grow up and continue the fights for racial, gender, sexual, and economic justice, because Black people will always have to fight for our humanity in this country.
As the months passed and the pandemic raged on, my excitement turned into fear and concern about how Covid-19 was affecting pregnant people. Slowly, I—along with the rest of the country—learned that pregnant and recently pregnant people who contracted Covid-19 were more likely to experience severe health outcomes, such as hospitalizations and death, compared with their non-pregnant counterparts. Pregnant people who contracted the novel coronavirus were also at a greater risk of having stillbirths and other pregnancy-related complications.
Worse, pregnant people of color—Black women, in particular—are already suffering a maternal and infant mortality crisis. Even before the pandemic, I was already three times more likely to die from pregnancy-related complications compared with white women. And when we do survive pregnancy and delivery, we are still more likely to experience negative postpartum health outcomes.
All of these factors—in addition to my chronic asthma, which put me at an increased risk of hospitalization and complications if I were to contract Covid-19—went into my decision to get vaccinated during my third trimester when I became eligible.
Since pregnant people were not a part of the vaccine trials, there were no scientific studies to tell me how the vaccine would affect my pregnancy or my fetus. So I weighed the pros and cons with my doctor, and she ultimately advised me to get the vaccine because either I could get the vaccine to protect myself and possibly extend protection to my fetus, or I don’t get the vaccine and risk contracting Covid-19, which could be deadly to both of us. I listened to my doctor’s advice, and my own motherly intuition, and got both doses of the vaccine just four weeks before welcoming my baby into the world.
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I am so grateful that my maternal intuition was spot-on. We now have scientific proof that getting vaccinated while pregnant can provide antibodies to one’s fetus. A study conducted by New York University in the fall highlighted that elevated antibody levels were found in cord blood from pregnant women vaccinated against Covid. And just this week, a new CDC study shows that infants born to pregnant people who were vaccinated during their pregnancy were 61 percent less likely to be hospitalized for a Covid infection compared with babies born to unvaccinated pregnant people.
In July 2021, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists and the Society for Maternal-Fetal Medicine, two of the leading organizations representing specialists in obstetric care, officially recommended that all pregnant individuals be vaccinated against Covid-19. The College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists also recommends that pregnant and recently pregnant people up to six weeks postpartum receive a booster dose following the completion of their initial vaccine or vaccine series.
The CDC suggests that people who are breastfeeding should get a vaccine and booster dose when they are eligible because they will be able to pass antibodies to their babies via breast milk. The CDC also recommends that people trying to get pregnant now, or who might become pregnant in the future, get vaccinated as soon as they can.
But even as I—and many other pregnant and breastfeeding moms—opt for the vaccine, research suggests the overall percentage is still pretty low: As of January 15, 2022, only 26 percent of Black pregnant people have been vaccinated against Covid-19, compared with 42 percent of pregnant people overall.
Vaccine skepticism within the Black community isn’t a new phenomenon; it’s rooted in centuries of experimentation on our bodies in the name of science. In an interview with NPR, Harriet Washington, the author of Medical Apartheid, makes the poignant observation: “If you only focus on African American behavior, it sounds like a pathological response by African Americans, when in reality, we’ve got a health care system that needs to be interrogated as well. We have to look at these two phenomena together in tandem rather than just one group’s behavior.”
Many Black folks rightfully have a distrust of the health care industrial complex. I, too, look at the medical field with extreme scrutiny and always do my research. But what I know, as a nonscientist, is that Black folks who contract Covid-19 are 2.6 times more likely to be hospitalized and almost two times more likely to die from the virus than white folks. At the same time, the number of pregnant people dying from Covid-19 continues to rise.
It’s also true that, while systemic racism within the health care system directly contributes to the disproportionately high rates of death in my community, it is not on us to fix the problem of a broken system—it’s on the health care institutions to do the work to fix this reality. Nevertheless, we can still be active participants in our health and well-being, while recognizing the forces working against us and our communities to access the care and resources that we need to thrive.
Looking at the bleak reality before me—as a Black person, as someone with asthma, and as a pregnant person—I could not risk the health and safety of my life and my future baby, so I got vaccinated as soon as it was available to me. And my baby will be getting vaccinated the moment that a vaccine is available for children under 5.
While I often hear that young kids who contract Covid are generally fine, young children are still dying from this virus, and there was a particularly large uptick in hospitalizations and death among kids 6 months to 4 years old when the Omicron variant surged in January. Plus, even for those children who experience a less severe or asymptomatic reaction, we do not yet know what long-Covid symptoms will actually look like in the future. So, for me, vaccination is key to ensure that my child will be able to play safely with other children and live a life outside of our house.
Until that coveted day arrives, I can take solace in knowing that my 9-month-old has some form of protection. At this point, we have to use all of the tools in our toolbox to stay safe and healthy. Vaccines against Covid are a tool that everyone in the United States over the age of 5 has access to. For that, I am thankful.