As a precautionary measure during the COVID-19 pandemic, it is recommended that planned pregnancy be avoided. The available data on the risks presented by planning a pregnancy during the COVID pandemic are reassuring but limited.
Pregnancy itself has not been shown to alter the course of COVID-19, and most affected pregnant women will experience only mild or moderate flulike symptoms. Patients with cardiovascular or metabolic comorbidities or those requiring immunosuppressants are expected to be at increased risk for more severe forms of the infection. Currently, no strong evidence suggests a higher risk for miscarriage, stillbirth, or adverse neonatal outcomes with maternal COVID-19 infection.
A report based on 38 cases found no evidence for vertical transmission from mother to fetus, and all neonatal specimens (placental tissue) tested negative for the virus. Moreover, no maternal deaths were reported among these 38 infected women. Another study of 11 infected pregnant women likewise found no increased risk for perinatal morbidity or mortality.
On the other hand, a recent article on the perinatal outcomes of 33 neonates born to mothers with confirmed COVID-19 reported three cases of neonatal COVID-19 as a result of possible vertical transmission. In two cases, symptoms were mild and initial positive coronavirus test results turned negative within a few days. The third case—a pregnancy delivered by emergency cesarean section at 31 weeks for fetal distress—was complicated by bacterial sepsis, thrombocytopenia, and coagulopathy, but once again, the initially positive coronavirus test was negative by day 7.
No neonatal deaths were reported in these 33 cases. The authors could not rule out the possibility of vertical transmission in the three COVID-positive newborns because strict infection control measures were implemented during the care of the patients.
Counseling Patients About Suspending Infertility Treatments
Counseling women is the key to acceptance of the need to suspend or postpone infertility treatments during the pandemic. In addition to the economic hardships that some patients may face as a consequence of the pandemic, an obvious source of frustration stems from not knowing how long delays in treatment might be necessary. A discussion with patients or couples may reassure them that delaying conception is the safest route. For some women, other treatment options might be offered, such as the use of a donor gamete.
Some patients, even when counseled appropriately, may elect to accept the unknown risks. These patients should be counseled about the benefits of cryopreservation with delayed transfer. This could be a compromise, because their overall chances of pregnancy will not be affected but they will have to wait to become pregnant.
Counseling patients about the true impact of delaying treatment in their individual circumstances, providing them with emotional and (if needed) psychological support is important while they wait for their treatment to start. For now, the vast majority of the patients understand the need for delay, appreciate the opportunity to consult the physician over the phone, and are demonstrating patience as they wait for their treatment to start or resume.
Resuming Infertility Care
Recommendations could change as the pandemic continues and more information becomes available about the impact of coronavirus infection during pregnancy and the overall capacity of the healthcare system improves. ASRM acknowledges that “reproductive care professionals, in consultation with their patients, will have to consider reassessing the criteria of what represents urgent and non-urgent care.” If the data remain reassuring and social distancing measures are able to slow down the spread of the disease, the infertility care of those couples who would be most affected by a delay in their treatment could gradually be resumed. On April 14, ASRM updated its recommendations about resuming infertility treatment: “ While it is not yet prudent to resume non-emergency infertility procedures, the Task Force recognizes it is also time to begin to consider strategies and best practices for resuming time-sensitive fertility treatments in the face of COVID-19.”
It is likely that the return to “normal” daily practice will be done in a stepwise fashion. I expect the practices first to open for diagnostic infertility testing, then for the less invasive procedures (frozen embryo transfer, intrauterine insemination) and finally for the more invasive lengthy procedures (stimulation with retrieval and embryo transfer). During the reopening of practice, strict infection control measures will need to be observed.