Pregnant in the Pandemic?
Health Department Educates about Risks and Various Avenues of Support
Mothers-to-be experience a wide range of emotions, from hope and joy to anxiety and depression. This is natural and not unexpected. Prior to COVID, the Centers for Disease Control reported that the numbers of women with depression at delivery were on the rise. In fact, cases nationwide were seven times higher in 2015 than 2000 according to the CDC. Earlier this year, a small Stanford University study reported that women’s risk for depression during pregnancy had doubled during the COVID pandemic. Thursday, October 7, is National Depression Screening Day and the Putnam County Department of Health wants to promote awareness about this rising health concern and alert those in need about the various types of support that are available.
“During the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, anxiety and stress levels are higher for nearly everyone,” said Kathy Percacciolo, RN, supervising public health nurse, “and pregnant and postpartum women may be more affected than most. Support groups can offer help to some, especially those who are experiencing heightened isolation with the pandemic. However, these groups are not the ultimate solution for serious mental health concerns, such as depression which needs treatment by a healthcare professional.”
Online support groups have in fact flourished throughout the pandemic. From early lockdown to the present, these venues became the answer for many as the need continued, and in many cases, increased. One support group, based in-person at the Desmond-Fish Public Library in Garrison since 2014, quickly adopted the Zoom platform and converted to online, thanks to facilitator Katherine Whiteside, a doula certified through Childbirth International. From January through September 2021, 749 Putnam online visits have been tallied, according to Ms. Whiteside, who hosts the group with co-facilitator and clinical psychologist Dr. Rachel Lemonik. Visits counted include those recorded from moms, partners and babies, and represent dozens of clients, most of whom reside in Putnam, while some may join from as far away as Texas or Nebraska.
“The support these women receive is of immeasurable value,” said Ms. Whiteside. “We run groups three times a week in Putnam and Westchester, all affiliated with local public libraries. Westchester group tallies are also high, with 738 in Ossining and 891 in Croton. Women are invited to participate in any session they wish, as often as they want, and there is no fee involved. Our online groups are an amazing service that frankly did not exist in such a comprehensive manner before the pandemic,” she stated. In addition to the online support, the facilitators have a robust referral list and can refer online participants to other professionals upon request. Most referrals to outside assistance are to pregnancy-focused chiropractors; post-partum exercise consultants; certified IBCLCs, who are lactation consultants certified by the gold standard International Board of Lactation Consultant Examiners; or mental health therapists.
Fortunately, as vaccination rates increased this summer, limited, in-person groups have been able to resume and health department nurses have been supporting these efforts. “Helping women to establish successful breastfeeding can be a challenge and it’s probably not hard to understand this is most easily done in person,” said public health nurse Diane Liscia, RN, MS, IBCLC, who has worked with her health department colleague Denise Sheeran, RN, to promote breastfeeding throughout Putnam, for many years prior to COVID.
“What we do best requires a warm, hands-on approach,” said Ms. Liscia, “and early establishment of breastfeeding is key. Let’s not forget how significant a role breastfeeding can play in a baby’s development and health, not just in the short term but also long term as well.”
For women who are pregnant during the pandemic, isolation has compounded the usual physical and emotional challenges. As if these heightened risks were not enough, last May the CDC added pregnancy-related references to its list of underlying medical conditions that places women at higher risk for severe illness from the COVID-19 virus. Although the overall risk of severe illness is still low, pregnant and recently pregnant women (within the last 42 days) are at an increased risk for severe illness from COVID-19 when compared to non-pregnant women. If someone pregnant does develop COVID, they are at increased risk for preterm birth, with a delivery earlier than 37 weeks. They also may be at increased risk for other poor pregnancy outcomes.
“The message here is for pregnant women to take all public health precautions very seriously to protect themselves from COVID,” said Ms. Sheeran. “This includes vaccination, which is safe for pregnant women and recommended by the CDC. It also means continued masking and social distancing.” For the in-person lactation support group at New York-Presbyterian Hudson Valley Hospital, all participants are pre-screened by the hospital, which serves many mothers on the westside of Putnam County.
The mission of the Putnam County Department of Health, nationally accredited by the Public Health Accreditation Board (PHAB), is to improve and protect the health of the Putnam County community, composed of nearly 100,000 residents. Core services include community health assessment, disease surveillance and control, emergency preparedness, environmental health protection, family health promotion and health education. For more information, please visit the Putnam County website at www.putnamcountyny.com, or visit the health department social media sites on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram @PutnamHealthNY.