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Pregnant women face higher risk of COVID-19 complications. Researchers in Pa. seek to learn why.

John Minchillo

Since the early months of the pandemic, public health experts noticed pregnant women were at higher risk for serious cases of COVID-19. Now four midstate health systems are working together to learn why some pregnant people with the virus get sicker than others.

Geisinger, Temple, University of Pittsburgh Medical Center and Penn State Health are partnering on the project. It’s funded by a $4 million grant to Penn State from the Pennsylvania Department of Health.

The health systems are sharing medical records — not including names or identifying information, according to Kristin Sznajder, the Penn State College of Medicine assistant professor leading the investigation.

Researchers plan to look at variables such as vaccine status, income and race — but also what Sznajder called “psychosocial factors,” such as how each mother handles stress, depression and family circumstances.

“Among all pregnant women who are infected, of course, not all of them are going to have severe disease,” she said. “So what are some of those factors that are associated with severe disease? So we’re looking at incidence of infection and also disease severity.”

The effort comes as scientists around the world are learning more about the effects of COVID-19 on pregnancy. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says several groups face elevated risk: Pregnant people with medical conditions, those above the age of 25, those living in areas of high transmission or low vaccination rates, those who work in close quarters with others and those who are members of racial or ethnic minority groups that live with health inequalities.

Babies whose mothers have COVID-19 are more likely to be born preterm or die prior to birth, the CDC states.

Sznajder says her team will use existing and future medical records. The four health systems expect to see about 48,000 pregnant people over the next three years. Researchers will also conduct surveys with 3,400 women.

By discovering risk factors for severe COVID-19, public health workers will know where to put resources, Sznajder said. By preventing neonatal complications of severe maternal infection — such as premature birth — the work will also aim to improve outcomes for newborns.

The study will conclude in 2025. Sznajder expects some preliminary findings to be made public this fall.