Covid, Maternal Mortality and Black Women:The pandemic highlighted health disparities for Black women

by Maya Pottiger and Word In Black

More than 73,000 Black lives were lost during the pandemic, making up 15% of all COVID-related deaths, the highest of any race, according to The Atlantic’s COVID Tracking Project.

This disparity was seen further in a CDC study looking at how COVID-19 impacts pregnant women. Black women made up 14.1% (57,572) of those included in the study and represented 36.6% (176) of the overall 447 deaths. Among the 34 deaths of pregnant women, 26.5% (nine) were Black women.

“Regardless of pregnancy status, Black women experienced a disproportionate number of deaths relative to their distribution among reported cases,” the study says. “This analysis highlights racial and ethnic disparities in both risk for infection and disease severity among pregnant women, indicating a need to address potential drivers of risk in these populations.”

This is not a new trend. The CDC’s Pregnancy Mortality Surveillance System, up-to-date through 2017, found 41.7 deaths per 100,000 live births for Black women. This is the highest number of deaths per live births. The closest number is seen in American Indian or Alaska Native women at 28.3 deaths per 100,000 live births. Black women are three times as likely during childbirth than white women.

Among Black women, chronic diseases like diabetes and hypertension are more widespread and less controlled, which puts them at higher risk of pregnancy-related complications. However, the racial disparities in maternal health care are caused by “racism, not race,” an NPR report said. Discriminatory policies like redlining create structural barriers to health care, like a lack of transportation, childcare issues and inadequate housing.

In the Birth Without Bias Mini-Report by Irth, Black and brown parents gave reviews of their care at hospitals. The report found about 20% of women of color felt their requests for help were refused or ignored, compared with 11% of white women.

“It became clear to me that people are not being treated the same way, even at the same place,” Irth founder Kimberly Seals Allers said to Forbes. “We needed to be able to see reviews from people actually like us. Reading the review of a middle-class white woman from the Upper East Side is not going to help a lower-income Black woman.”

Even Serena Williams wasn’t an exception. In her February 2018 Vogue cover story, Williams opened up about the serious complications she faced after giving birth to her daughter and the skepticism from her doctors. Williams ultimately ended up with six weeks of bed rest from various complications, including blood clots and intense coughing fits that popped open her C-section wound.

This public account of a harrowing medical story prompted many Black women to speak out on Twitter, sharing their own stories. “This is how you know that racism in medicine can impact anyone at any income level. The staff should have been ready for a clotting issue based on her history,” one user wrote.

In a 2017 study by NPR and ProPublica, the results showed that United States has the worst rate of maternal deaths in the developed world, and that number is rising.

Congresswomen Lauren Underwood and Alma Adams, Senator Cory Booker and members of the Black Maternal Health Caucus introduced the Black Maternal Health Momnibus Act of 2021. The Momnibus “builds on existing legislation to comprehensively address every dimension of the maternal health crisis in America.” Existing efforts include fighting for 12-month postpartum Medicaid coverage, which is the largest provider for maternity care for Black women.

The Momnibus is made up of 12 titles, which were each introduced as standalone bills.

At the American Medical Association, President Susan R. Bailey, MD, wrote about supporting the Mothers and Offspring Mortality and Morbidity Awareness Act, or the MOMMA Act. The legislation would extend coverage for postpartum care to 12 months, up from just 60 days. This is critical because roughly 33% of pregnancy-related deaths happen between one week to one year after child birth.

President Bailey cited the crisis being driven by multiple factors, like reduced access to comprehensive reproductive health care, closures of rural and urban maternity units, and inadequate insurance coverage before, during and after pregnancy.

“Other contributing factors include longstanding public policies, laws and racism that produce inequities in the social determinants of health such as education, employment, housing and transportation,” Bailey said.

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