Escambia’s pregnant inmates face increased COVID risks

by Jeremy Morrison, Inweekly

The prospects of COVID can be frightening. All the more so if you’re pregnant. And perhaps even more so if you’re pregnant and in jail, where a basic safety measure such as social distancing can be logistically difficult.

There are currently eight pregnant women residing at the Escambia County Jail, according to county spokesperson Hana Frenette. Pensacola City Councilwoman Sherri Myers recently raised concerns with Escambia County officials regarding these pregnant women at the jail.

“I raise this as a concern because pregnant women appear to be more adversely impact by Covid-19 than women who are not pregnant,” the councilwoman wrote in her email to the county. “I would like to know how the health of pregnant women is being address in the Escambia County Jail and what actions are being taken to protect this vulnerable population and the unborn child.”

According to the U.S. Center for Disease Control, pregnant women are at a greater risk than the general population when it comes to COVID. They are more likely to be hospitalized and more likely to need to enter the intensive care unit and be placed on a ventilator. Fatality rates appear to be about the same as in the general population.

“It’s all just data we’re kinda collecting as we’re going,” notes Dr. Leslie Sanders, an OB/GYN with Baptist Health Care in Pensacola.

Dr. Bill Schwartz, a specialist in maternal-fetal medicine with Ascension Medical Group, knows of two local pregnant women with COVID who went to the ICU.

“They both pulled out of there and their pregnancies did fine,” he notes. “But it was very nerving.”

Schwartz cites recent CDC data that suggests pregnant women are 5.4 times more likely to be hospitalized, 1.5 times more likely to be admitted to the ICU and 1.7 times more likely to need a ventilator. It’s not particularly surprising that COVID is more dangerous for pregnant women, as any virus poses increased risks.

“Any viral infection that goes to the lungs can make a pregnant woman very sick,” said Dr. Schwartz, explaining that during pregnancy a woman’s body experiences immunological and physiological changes which makes it more susceptible to viral infections.

Both of the pregnant women with COVID locally also had pre-existing health issues, one with diabetes and the other with hypertension. Schwartz said that pregnant women without other health concerns “do pretty well” when it comes to COVID.

The developing fetuses inside the women also appear to be doing alright. Schwartz cited a recent study published in the American Journal of OB/GYN in July that indicated a 3.2 percent vertical transmission rate; an earlier study in China indicated a 2.7 percent transmission rate. However, unless there are other health issues associated with the baby — such as a compromised immune system due to premature birth — the illness seems to be mild and is not believed to cause birth defects.

“But there’s not a lot of data,” Schwartz said, stressing that much remains unknown when it comes to COVID.

Insofar as the pregnant inmates at the jail, they are advised the same safety measures as anyone else: mask, hand washing and social distancing. Escambia County Administrator Janice Gilley laid out the jail’s approach in a reply to Councilwoman Myers.

“As with all inmates, the pregnant females have been provided masks and soap along with education about COVID that is available on the kiosk for every inmate,” Gilley wrote, explaining that the women also go to regular doctor visits and have the service of a high-risk clinic inside the facility.

Dr. Sanders said that in any environment such as a jail, social distancing would be key.

“If they can space them six feet apart, if they don’t have to be in areas that are heavily populated, “ she said.

Dr. Schwartz, noting the inherent issues with a jail, where a large number of people reside in close quarters — “you have to worry about any situation where you would have to worry about spread” — said that pregnant women should probably be separated from other inmates.

“They shouldn’t probably be in general population,” he said. “They probably should be somewhere isolated.”