Pregnant women with coronavirus facing hospital bed shortage

Courtesy of Chiba University Hospital
A midwife feeds a baby born to an infected pregnant woman on Jan. 20.

The number of pregnant women infected with the novel coronavirus has surged amid the spread of the omicron variant.

According to preliminary data compiled by the Tokyo metropolitan government, 261 expectant women contracted the virus from Jan. 1 to Jan. 20, marking an about 50-fold increase on the previous month. At some hospitals, beds reserved for infected pregnant women have been fully occupied. This raises the possibility of no hospital beds being available for those recuperating at home who experience a sudden deterioration in condition.

Only a limited number of medical institutions accept infected pregnant women due to difficulties associated with providing pregnancy and childbirth care in addition to treatment for COVID-19. In August, a pregnant woman infected with the virus was unable to secure a hospital bed and gave birth prematurely at home in Chiba Prefecture. The newborn child died. This incident prompted hospitals to provide more beds for infected pregnant women.

As of Friday, the San-Ikukai Hospital in Sumida Ward, Tokyo, was caring for nine pregnant patients infected with the coronavirus. The seven beds set aside for infected pregnant women and children were fully occupied, so some expectant women were being treated in beds originally allocated to COVID-19 patients. The hospital had seen only mild infection cases involving a fever and sore throat, but pneumonia was confirmed in two patients last week.

“We’re continually fielding requests to admit infected pregnant women,” said Mie Yamada, head of the hospital’s obstetrics and gynecology department. “I’m worried if we can hold on.”

A 20-year-old company employee who is eight months pregnant was admitted to the hospital after testing positive for the virus following her husband’s infection. Her COVID-19 symptoms eased in a few days. “I was worried about giving birth prematurely,” she said. “I’m glad I was able to be hospitalized.”

At Chiba University Hospital in Chiba City, two beds reserved for pregnant women with the coronavirus have been occupied most of the time since the middle of the month. According to the Chiba prefectural government, there were no infected pregnant women in the prefecture from October to December. As of Jan. 20, however, the prefecture had registered about 50 such individuals, many of whom were recuperating at home.

Some reports say pregnant women infected with the coronavirus tend to develop serious symptoms, while some studies point to an increased risk of premature birth. During pregnancy, blood oxygen levels need to be 95% or higher to support the fetus.

The Japan Society of Obstetrics and Gynecology and other entities have formulated guidelines to help pregnant women recuperating at home manage their condition. The guidelines advise patients to contact their respective obstetrics and gynecology specialists or public health centers in the following circumstances: periods of breathlessness that strike at least twice an hour, a heart rate of 110 bpm or higher, or a blood oxygen level that does not recover from 93-94% within an hour of resting. The guidelines also advise patients to request an ambulance if they have difficulty speaking due to breathlessness or if their blood oxygen level drops below 92%.

“The number of pregnant women convalescing at home will probably increase,” said Akihito Nakai, the director of Nippon Medical School’s Tamanagayama Hospital. “It’s important for administrative authorities to keep track of pregnant women infected with the coronavirus and work with their obstetricians so sudden changes in their condition aren’t overlooked.”