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USF experts urge pregnant women to get vaccinated, debunk COVID misinformation

Expectant moms who get the COVID-19 vaccine can immunize their babies before birth and while breastfeeding.
Vonabell Hurst who goes by Zai, touches her pregnant belly during her baby shower party on Saturday, Aug. 17, 2019 in Largo.
Vonabell Hurst who goes by Zai, touches her pregnant belly during her baby shower party on Saturday, Aug. 17, 2019 in Largo. [ "MARTHA ASENCIO-RHINE | TIMES" | Tampa Bay Times ]
Published Oct. 1
Updated Oct. 1

TAMPA — Only 30 percent of expectant mothers are vaccinated against COVID-19. But they are 70 percent more likely to die from the illness compared to people who aren’t pregnant.

That’s because pregnancy is considered a high-risk condition for infected patients, similar to diabetes and cancer. Pregnant COVID-19 patients are more likely to end up in hospitals and intensive care units, said Judette Louis, chair of obstetrics and gynecology at the Morsani College of Medicine in the University of South Florida.

Louis and other University of South Florida experts discussed how COVID-19 affects women and children at Wednesday’s virtual discussion hosted by the USF’s Women’s Health Collaborative. They answered questions sent in advance, or from the online audience.

Donna Petersen is the dean of the College of Public Health at the University of South Florida.
Donna Petersen is the dean of the College of Public Health at the University of South Florida. [ University of South Florida ]

They spent a lot of time correcting misinformation, such as the belief that the COVID-19 mRNA vaccines can alter a body’s DNA, including that of a baby in utero.

That’s absolutely not true, said Kevin Sneed, dean of the USF College of Pharmacy. The messenger mRNA in the vaccine sends a code in the body to create an antibody response against COVID-19, Sneed said, but it cannot affect the body’s natural DNA.

Another piece of misinformation that they debunked is that the vaccine was hastily developed, said Donna Petersen, dean of the USF College of Public Health. Messenger mRNA vaccines have been studied for decades, she said, but the urgency of a global pandemic accelerated funding and collaboration between research labs around the world to produce COVID vaccines.

“If you got money and people working together,” Petersen said, “you can speed things up.”

Related: She has Down syndrome, then got COVID. Could Amanda Hall learn to walk again?

Expectant moms can experience the same vaccine side effects as the average population — sore arm, fatigue, headache — with no risk of increased miscarriage or future infertility.

They can get vaccinated at any point during their pregnancy as well as lactation, said Sarah Obican, director of maternal-fetal medicine at the USF Morsani College of Medicine.

Vaccinated pregnant women not only transfer COVID-fighting antibodies to their babies before birth, but their breast milk has also been infused by antibodies, so moms can further immunize their child by breastfeeding them, said Judette Louis, obstetrics and gynecology chair at the Morsani College of Medicine.

“We want pregnant women to get vaccinated,” Sneed said.

Dr. Judette Louis is the chair of obstetrics and gynecology at the Morsani College of Medicine at the University of South Florida.
Dr. Judette Louis is the chair of obstetrics and gynecology at the Morsani College of Medicine at the University of South Florida. [ University of South Florida ]

Expectant moms need the added protection of the Pfizer booster shot, said Catherine Lynch, professor of obstetrics and gynecology at the USF Morsani College of Medicine. Bear in mind that the booster shot is different from a third dose of the vaccine.

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Highly immunocompromised patients, such as chemotherapy or transplant recipients, Lynch said, can undergo a three-dose regimen, receiving the third shot four weeks after their second. The booster shot should be administered six months after the last shot is received by those ages 65 and older, whose jobs put them at high-risk of infection or have risky health conditions, including pregnancy.

Related: Should you get a Pfizer COVID booster shot? Here’s what you need to know.

The experts also talked about how the pandemic hit kids hard this summer and as school started. They accounted for 30 percent of the country’s COVID infections in September. The delta variant sent more children to intensive care units than any other point in the pandemic, said Carina Rodriguez, chair of pediatric infectious diseases at the USF Morsani College of Medicine.

Some parents are keeping their kids away from the vaccine after hearing about cases of myocarditis, inflammation of the heart muscle that can cause chest pain and rapid heart beats, among children after the second shot, Rodriguez said.

Related: Pfizer vaccine for kids ages 5 to 11 may not be available until November

But the risk of that is extremely rare, Rodriguez said, and one study shows that the risk of a child suffering myocarditis is six to 40 times higher if they’re infected by COVID.

Vaccine hesitancy is not limited to coronavirus. Hillsborough County Public Schools have seen a rise in parents submitting exemptions so their children don’t have to get various vaccines, said Maria Russ, the school district’s supervisor of school health services.

Dr. Catherine Lynch is the associate vice president for women's health at USF Health.
Dr. Catherine Lynch is the associate vice president for women's health at USF Health. [ University of South Florida ]

The best way for parents to keep children safe is to prioritize vaccinating their children and reminding them to wear masks and social distance in schools, said Ivonne Hernandez, assistant professor at the USF College of Nursing.

In-person instruction is critical for the mental well-being of students and parents, Hernandez said. Parents can help keep schools open by educating their children about public health.

“Parents are the first teachers,” Russ said.

Related: Florida protected nursing homes from COVID lawsuits. Then cases began to spike.

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