Pregnant and breastfeeding women have so many things to think about when it comes to what they put in their bodies, to protect their health and the health of their babies. But women carrying, birthing and nursing babies during the COVID-19 pandemic have had a new challenge to consider: Should they be vaccinated against COVID-19 while pregnant or breastfeeding?
Many moms have decided “yes.” We talked to five of them who work for UNC Health to find out why.
Erika Shah, MD
As a healthcare provider, UNC Health internist Erika Shah, MD, was in the first group to be offered a COVID-19 vaccine. As a new mom still getting used to breastfeeding then-6-week-old Sonia, she wondered if vaccination would affect her milk supply or or her breastfeeding relationship with Sonia.
“You think about all these things from an emotional standpoint. But I’m a scientist, so I also thought about it quite logically. I knew how vaccines help stimulate our immune system and that we give vaccines in pregnancy and breastfeeding all the time. They’re safe,” Dr. Shah says. “If anything, there’s a theoretical benefit that me being vaccinated and having antibodies could pass to Sonia and offer her some protection.”
Once she was fully vaccinated, Dr. Shah felt reassured. There were no changes to her milk supply and Sonia wasn’t any fussier than usual. Dr. Shah herself felt fine; she had a sore arm and was a little extra tired for one day after her shot.
She has advice for women who are considering pregnancy or are pregnant now.
“I would counsel them to think about getting the vaccine sooner rather than later because the sooner you’re protected, you’ll be protected through pregnancy, and we know that pregnant women are at higher risk for complications with COVID infection,” Dr. Shah says. “Thousands of women who are pregnant have been vaccinated, and there hasn’t been any evidence of safety risks.”
Heather Grant Morefield
Heather Morefield, UNC Health executive director for real estate and development, was expecting twins when the COVID-19 vaccines became available. The first thing she did was reach out to her OB-GYN providers to get their advice.
They were supportive of vaccination. Then, Morefield read up on the recommendations from the World Health Organization, which supported vaccinations for pregnant women. (Other leading medical groups have done the same.)
“For me, the thought of getting COVID while pregnant felt worse than the unknowns of the vaccine,” Morefield says.
She also knew she was going to need help after the babies were born and the vaccines would be an important part of keeping them safe.
“Even though we were pretty isolated at the time, I figured that once the twins were born, I was going to need help and knew that I wouldn’t want anybody who wasn’t vaccinated to come near them, so I felt I should do the same,” Morefield says.
That doesn’t mean she didn’t have doubts before she actually got the vaccine.
“I actually sat outside in our parking lot for a little while before going in, wondering if I’m doing the right thing,” Morefield says. “But I trusted my doctor, I trusted the science and I felt that the alternative of the babies possibly getting COVID was much worse than my worries about anything else.”
Her babies, Pete Douglas and Eleanor Jacqueline, were born in April and are healthy and developing normally.
Mother of three and UNC Physicians Network Business Development Manager Stephanie Edwards says she did not think twice when given the opportunity to get the vaccine while she was still breastfeeding her now 1-year-old daughter, Abigail.
“I knew the implications if I did not get the vaccine and then I got COVID; I would not be able to breastfeed my baby or care for my family because I would be isolated from them,” Edwards says. “There are so many negatives to not getting it. When you’re thinking of caring for your immediate family, I think that’s the most loving thing you can do.”
Edwards says the vaccine had no negative impact on her baby.
“She is so incredibly healthy and full of life,” says Edwards, who says she would also feel comfortable getting the shot while pregnant, especially when compared to the risks of COVID-19, which has affected people’s bodies in unexpected and sometimes long-term ways.
“We have such a robust healthcare system and highly educated scientists who are developing these vaccines,” she says. “We know they put time and work and energy into creating a safe vaccine for all people.”
Melissa Kochuk, UNC Physicians Network patient, clinician and teammate experience manager, became pregnant in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“It was difficult being pregnant in the pandemic because pregnant women were considered a high risk for complications from COVID,” Kochuk says. “I was really glad when the vaccines came out that soon after, the experts were recommending pregnant women get the vaccine.”
She talked to her OB-GYN, as well as some physicians where she worked, and then received the vaccine at the end of January as she entered her third trimester.
“One of the things that was most motivating to me was that, obviously, my son can’t be vaccinated now, but getting vaccinated while I was still pregnant, I could potentially pass on antibodies that could protect him once he was born,” Kochuk says.
Charlie arrived in April and is a happy, healthy baby.
As a UNC Health data scientist, Sophia Bessias understands how to read and interpret scientific data, and she had no hesitation about getting the COVID-19 vaccine while breastfeeding. She paid close attention to research and the experiences of pregnant and lactating healthcare workers who received the vaccines right away. By the time she was eligible, she was very comfortable with receiving the shot.
“After seeing so much data from so many people around the world taking the vaccine, including large cohorts of pregnant people, I’m very on board with the idea, and I’m quite excited about the protection that it can offer while we’re still waiting for a vaccine for young children, which is a long and difficult wait,” Bessias says.
Bessias says she wishes the vaccine had been available when she was pregnant.
“If I had access to the vaccine while pregnant, I would be thrilled at the idea of being able to get vaccinated and offer more of a direct layer of protection to my baby,” Bessias says. “Just as I got vaccinated with Tdap while I was pregnant both times, I would be jumping at that opportunity now, if I were pregnant again, because that amount of protection is even greater than what we can transfer through breast milk.”
Bessias says the availability of vaccines also meant it became safer for her baby Adrian and his big sister Zoey to be around other members of their family, such as her parents and grandmother.
“Vaccinating the adults gave us an extra layer of security for everybody and an ability to have the kids engage more with my grandmother and parents,” Bessias says. “I was really happy to be able to get the family back together in that way.”
Visit unchealthcare.org/vaccine to schedule a COVID-19 vaccine and for the latest information on the COVID-19 vaccines.