according to a study out of New York-Presbyterian Hospital.
“It is suggested in the cumulative data that the virus does not confer additional risk to the fetus during labor or during the early postnatal period in both preterm and term infants,” concluded Jeffrey Perlman, MB ChB, and colleagues in Pediatrics.
But other experts suggest substantial gaps remain in our understanding of maternal transmission of SARS-CoV-2.
“Much more needs to be known,” Munish Gupta, MD, and colleagues from Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center and Harvard Medical School, Boston, said in an accompanying editorial.
The prospective study is the first to describe a cohort of U.S. COVID-19–related deliveries, with the prior neonatal impact of COVID-19 “almost exclusively” reported from China, noted the authors. They included a cohort of 326 women who were tested for SARS-CoV-2 on admission to labor and delivery at New York-Presbyterian Hospital between March 22 and April 15th, 2020. Of the 31 (10%) mothers who tested positive, 15 (48%) were asymptomatic and 16 (52%) were symptomatic.
Two babies were born prematurely (one by Cesarean) and were isolated in negative pressure rooms with continuous positive airway pressure. Both were moved out of isolation after two negative test results and “have exhibited an unremarkable clinical course,” the authors reported.
The other 29 term babies were cared for in their mothers’ rooms, with breastfeeding allowed, if desired. These babies and their mothers were discharged from the hospital between 24 and 48 hours after delivery.
“Visitor restriction for mothers who were positive for COVID-19 included 14 days of no visitation from the start of symptoms,” noted the team.
They added “since the prepublication release there have been a total of 47 mothers positive for COVID-19, resulting in 47 infants; 4 have been admitted to neonatal intensive care. In addition, 32 other infants have been tested for a variety of indications within the unit. All infants test results have been negative.”
The brief report outlined the institution’s checklist for delivery preparedness in either the operating room or labor delivery room, including personal protective equipment, resuscitation, transportation to the neonatal intensive care unit, and early postresuscitation care. “Suspected or confirmed COVID-19 alone in an otherwise uncomplicated pregnancy is not an indication for the resuscitation team or the neonatal fellow,” they noted, adding delivery room preparation and management should include contact precautions. “With scrupulous attention to infectious precautions, horizontal viral transmission should be minimized,” they advised.
Dr. Perlman and associates emphasized that rapid turnaround SARSCoV-2 testing is “crucial to minimize the likelihood of a provider becoming infected and/or infecting the infant.”
Although the findings are “clearly reassuring,” Dr. Gupta and colleagues have reservations. “To what extent does this report address concerns for infection risk with a rooming-in approach to care?” they asked in their accompanying editorial. “The answer is likely some, but not much.”
Many questions remain, they said, including: “What precautions were used to minimize infection risk during the postbirth hospital course? What was the approach to skin-to-skin care and direct mother-newborn contact? Were restrictions placed on family members? Were changes made to routine interventions such as hearing screens or circumcisions? What practices were in place around environmental cleaning? Most important, how did the newborns do after discharge?”
The current uncertainty around neonatal COVID-19 infection risk has led to “disparate” variations in care recommendations, they pointed out. Whereas China’s consensus guidelines recommend a 14-day separation of COVID-19–positive mothers from their healthy infants, a practice supported by the American Academy of Pediatrics “when possible,” the Italian Society of Neonatology, the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, and the Canadian Paediatric Society advise “rooming-in and breastfeeding with appropriate infection prevention measures.”
Dr. Gupta and colleagues pointed to the following as at least three “critical and time-sensitive needs for research around neonatal care and outcomes related to COVID-19”:
- Studies need to have much larger sample sizes and include diverse populations. This will allow for reliable measurement of outcomes.
- Descriptions of care practices must be in detail, especially about infection prevention; these should be presented in a way to compare the efficacy of different approaches.
- There needs to be follow-up information on outcomes of both the mother and the neonate after the birth hospitalization.
Asked to comment, Lillian Beard, MD, of George Washington University in Washington welcomed the data as “good news.”
“Although small, the study was done during a 3-week peak period at the hottest spot of the pandemic in the United States during that period. It illustrates how delivery room preparedness, adequate personal protective equipment, and carefully planned infection control precautions can positively impact outcomes even during a seemingly impossible period,” she said.
“Although there are many uncertainties about maternal COVID-19 transmission and neonatal infection risks ... in my opinion, during the after birth hospitalization, the inherent benefits of rooming in for breast feeding and the opportunities for the demonstration and teaching of infection prevention practices for the family home, far outweigh the risks of disease transmission,” said Dr. Beard, who was not involved with the study.
The study and the commentary emphasize the likely low risk of vertical transmission of the virus, with horizontal transmission being the greater risk. However, cases of transplacental transmission have been reported, and the lead investigator of one recent placental study cautions against complacency.
“Neonates can get infected in both ways. The majority of cases seem to be horizontal, but those who have been infected or highly suspected to be vertically infected are not a small percentage either,” said Daniele de Luca, MD, PhD, president-elect of the European Society for Pediatric and Neonatal Intensive Care (ESPNIC) and a neonatologist at Antoine Béclère Hospital in Clamart, France.
“Perlman’s data are interesting and consistent with other reports around the world. However, two things must be remembered,” he said in an interview. “First, newborn infants are at relatively low risk from SARS-CoV-2 infections, but this is very far from zero risk. Neonatal SARS-CoV-2 infections do exist and have been described around the world. While they have a mild course in the majority of cases, neonatologists should not forget them and should be prepared to offer the best care to these babies.”
“Second, how this can be balanced with the need to promote breastfeeding and avoid overtreatment or separation from the mother is a question far from being answered. Gupta et al. in their commentary are right in saying that we have more questions than answers. While waiting for the results of large initiatives (such as the ESPNIC EPICENTRE Registry that they cite) to answer these open points, the best we can do is to provide a personalised case by case approach, transparent information to parents, and an open counselling informing clinical decisions.”
The study received no external funding. Dr. Perlman and associates had no financial disclosures. Dr. Gupta and colleagues had no relevant financial disclosures. Neither Dr. Beard nor Dr. de Luca had any relevant financial disclosures.
SOURCE: Perlman J et al. Pediatrics. 2020;146(2):e20201567.