Labor & Delivery: An overlooked entry point for the spread of viral infection

OB hospitalists have a key role to play


A novel coronavirus originating in Wuhan, China, has killed more than 2,800 people and infected more than 81,000 individuals globally. Public health officials around the world and in the United States are working together to contain the outbreak.

A pregnant woman in a hospital bed Bunwit/Getty Images

There are 57 confirmed cases in the United States, including 18 people evacuated from the Diamond Princess, a cruise ship docked in Yokohama, Japan.1 But the focus on coronavirus, even in early months of the epidemic, serves as an opportunity to revisit the spread of viral disease in hospital settings.

Multiple points of viral entry

In truth, most hospitals are well prepared for the coronavirus, starting with the same place they prepare for most infectious disease epidemics – the emergency department. Patients who seek treatment for early onset symptoms may start with their primary care physicians, but increasing numbers of patients with respiratory concerns and/or infection-related symptoms will first seek medical attention in an emergency care setting.2

Many experts have acknowledged the ED as a viral point of entry, including the American College of Emergency Physicians (ACEP), which produced an excellent guide for management of influenza that details prevention, diagnoses, and treatment protocols in an ED setting.3

But another important, and often forgotten, point of entry in a hospital setting is the obstetrical (OB) Labor & Delivery (L&D) department. Although triage for most patients begins in the main ED, in almost every hospital in the United States, women who present with pregnancy-related issues are sent directly to and triaged in L&D, where – when the proper protocols are not in place – they may transmit viral infection to others.

Pregnancy imparts higher risk

“High risk” is often associated with older, immune-compromised adults. But pregnant women who may appear “healthy” are actually in a state that a 2015 study calls “immunosuppressed” whereby the “… pregnant woman actually undergoes an immunological transformation, where the immune system is necessary to promote and support the pregnancy and growing fetus.”4 Pregnant women, or women with newborns or babies, are at higher risk when exposed to viral infection, with a higher mortality risk than the general population.5 In the best cases, women who contract viral infections are treated carefully and recover fully. In the worst cases, they end up on ventilators and can even die as a result.

Although we are still learning about the Wuhan coronavirus, we already know it is a respiratory illness with a lot of the same characteristics as the influenza virus, and that it is transmitted through droplets (such as a sneeze) or via bodily secretions. Given the extreme vulnerability and physician exposure of women giving birth – in which not one, but two lives are involved – viruses like coronavirus can pose extreme risk. What’s more, public health researchers are still learning about potential transmission of coronavirus from mothers to babies. In the international cases of infant exposure to coronavirus, the newborn showed symptoms within 36 hours of being born, but it is unclear if exposure happened in utero or was vertical transmission after birth.6


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