Throughout the pandemic, public health officials have strongly advised pregnant women and other high-risk people to take extra precautions and avoid contracting COVID-19. But the rapid rise of the Omicron variant — described as "mild" by many — has left plenty of people wondering what it means if you’re pregnant.
How does the Omicron variant affect pregnant women? Should you still try to protect yourself from COVID-19, or is it less of a threat to you and your baby now?
Experts stress that it’s crucial to continue to have your guard up. "It’s very frustrating that Omicron has been messaged globally as a milder variant," says Melissa Simon, M.D., an OB/GYN at Northwestern Medicine in Chicago. "There are still certainly serious illnesses and deaths occurring due to Omicron and especially in more vulnerable populations — that includes pregnant people."
Here’s what you need to know about the Omicron variant and how it can impact pregnant women.
What are the symptoms of the Omicron variant in pregnant women?
It’s important to remember that the Omicron variant is still a relatively new strain of COVID-19. The World Health Organization (WHO) only identified Omicron as a variant of concern in late November before it spread rapidly across the world. It has identified and continues to monitor several subvariants — dubbed B.1.1.529, BA.1, BA.2 and BA.3 — within the Omicron family.
With that, scientists are still learning more about Omicron and how it can affect people, including pregnant women.
As of now, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) maintains that these are the main symptoms of COVID-19:
- Fever or chills
- Shortness of breath or difficulty breathing
- Muscle or body aches
- New loss of taste or smell
- Sore throat
- Congestion or runny nose
- Nausea or vomiting
But another report from the CDC released in mid-December details slightly different symptoms for COVID cases caused by the Omicron variant. That report, which analyzed a very small number of cases, found that people usually had the following symptoms:
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- Runny nose
These symptoms have been detected in the general population too, and experts say they can apply to pregnant women as well. "At present, there is no data to suggest that presenting symptoms differ between pregnant folks, and those who aren’t pregnant," says Kjersti Aagaard, M.D., Ph.D., professor of obstetrics and gynecology at Baylor College of Medicine in Texas.
Michael Cackovic, M.D., a maternal-fetal medicine physician at the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center in Ohio, agrees. "With Delta, we noticed the acute onset of shortness of breath or patients complaining, 'I can’t breathe,'" he says. "With Omicron, the symptoms are pretty much the same as in other groups: cough, congestion, sore throat, headache, muscle pains."
Does the Omicron variant cause more severe disease in pregnant women?
It can, and doctors say that there are a few reasons. "Because pregnant women have an aspect of immunosuppression that allows them to carry what amounts to a baby that is one-half genetically different than themselves, any illness has a potentially more dangerous effect on the pregnant woman," Dr. Cackovic says. "Pregnancy additionally carries the risk of preterm birth, and we are seeing exceptionally high rates with COVID in general."
Whether this will also happen with the Omicron variant is hard to tell, he says, adding that "more research is needed in this area."
"Regardless of the variant, pregnant persons have a higher chance than non-pregnant persons of getting admitted to the hospital with COVID symptoms and needing to be transferred to the intensive care unit," Dr. Simon says.
Experts say vaccination status matters too when it comes to the severity of the disease. A recently published Nature Medicine study out of Scotland found that 98 percent of pregnant patients who were admitted to the ICU for critical care due to COVID-19 were unvaccinated.
"Most people who are vaccinated and boosted do not get COVID," says Dr. Simon. "And, if they are to get an infection, regardless of the variant, they have a much lower chance of getting hospitalized, an even more substantially lower chance of getting intubated, and an almost zero chance of dying."
Dr. Simon says it’s extremely concerning that many pregnant women haven’t gotten the COVID-19 vaccine for that precise reason.
"We have a vaccine that’s considered very safe in pregnancy and, thus, COVID is a preventable disease. Anyone who is pregnant should be getting the vaccine or booster if they are eligible," she says.
How can pregnant women protect themselves from the Omicron variant?
One of the biggest things, experts say, is to get vaccinated against COVID-19 and to receive your booster shot when you’re eligible. Major medical associations — including the CDC, American College of Obstetrics and Gynecologists (ACOG) and the Society of Maternal Fetal Medicine — recommend the COVID vaccine for women who are considering becoming pregnant, are pregnant or are breastfeeding.
"It has a proven safety profile in all areas of the reproductive life cycle and is our best weapon to prevent the severe complications of the disease," says Dr. Cackovic. "Additionally, the booster itself offers the best protection for Mom, baby and family from the Omicron variant."
Dr. Aagaard recommends that other family members who are eligible, like your partner if you have one and other children in the house, also get vaccinated against COVID-19 to protect both you and your baby. "It is important," she says.Dr. Simon stresses how critical it is to follow CDC guidance and make sure to wear a proper, fitted mask when you’re out in public, particularly in crowds and indoor spaces. "Don’t let your guard down," she advises.