She was having trouble getting a full breath. That was the first thing. The day before, Autumn Carver, seven months pregnant with her third child, had enjoyed a CrossFit class. Now a simple cough was compounded by the breathing issues, which rapidly worsened. It wasn’t long before her husband, Zach Carver, took Autumn to Community Hospital South in the couple’s hometown of Indianapolis and then began a series of heartbreaking Facebook updates.
As COVID-19 began to ravage Autumn’s system, the 34-year-old’s condition deteriorated with dizzying speed. The physicians started her on life-supporting oxygenation therapy, then placed her on a ventilator and admitted her to the intensive care unit (ICU). She was flown by helicopter to Indiana University Health Methodist Hospital, where a crash C-section delivered Huxley Elias Carver safely, albeit two months premature.
Within a week of being admitted, Autumn was under sedation and paralyzed as physicians worked to relieve the pneumonia filling her lungs with fluid. “Please pray her lungs begin to heal,” Zach wrote on Facebook on September 9. “She is fighting so hard, and I am so proud of her,” he wrote two days later. Not long after, doctors told Zach that a double lung transplant might be his wife ’s only chance for survival. The couple is still hoping for that “miracle,” Zach wrote on September 18. More than a month into her ICU stay, Autumn has still not met her newborn son.
When Autumn became pregnant earlier this year, she and Zach considered their options. The couple had experienced three prior miscarriages. After talks with their physician, they both decided to wait on the COVID-19 vaccine. With that decision, Autumn became part of a growing and dangerous trend in the U.S.
“The Delta variant in unvaccinated pregnant patients is one of the most horrifying disease processes I’ve ever seen,” says Danielle Jones, an obstetric hospitalist who works at several centers in Austin, Tex. “My heart is broken. My patients are suffering. Families are grieving. Moms are never meeting their babies.”
Although it will take some time for corroborating data to be compiled, anecdotal and preliminary reports from the field are staggering. Some unvaccinated pregnant people are suffering far worse courses of COVID than those who have been inoculated, and the consequences can be severe. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 22,000 pregnant people have been hospitalized, and 161 have died, because of COVID as of September 27.
Between the end of June and end of August, cases among pregnant people in the U.S. doubled from more than 500 to more than 1,000 per week, “and these numbers are likely an underestimate,” says Scott Pauley, a press officer at the CDC. Meanwhile the 22 COVID-related deaths among pregnant people recorded in August marked the highest one-month total since the pandemic hit—and shocked some obstetric doctors and nurses, who might normally see “zero to two” maternal deaths over a full career, Jones suggests. And Pauley notes that after months of decline, “we now see an increased number of pregnant people admitted to the ICU in July and August.”
Experts expect many pregnant people will be hospitalized largely because so many remain unvaccinated even as the Delta variant surges across the country. Among people who are pregnant in the U.S., only 32 percent of those aged 18 to 49 are fully vaccinated, according to CDC data from September 25.