PHOENIX CITY, Alabama. (AP) – Sometimes when she feeds her little daughter, Amanda Harrison gets overwhelmed with emotion and has to wipe away her tears of gratitude. She was lucky to be here with her baby in her arms.
Harrison was 29 weeks pregnant and had not been vaccinated when she contracted COVID-19 in August. At first the symptoms were mild, but suddenly she felt that she could not breathe. She lived in Phoenix City, Alabama, was intubated and taken to a hospital in Birmingham, where doctors gave birth to baby Lake two months ahead of schedule and put Harrison on life support.
Kindal Nipper, who was born outside of Columbus, Georgia, had only a brief duel with COVID-19, but the outcome was more tragic. She was several weeks away from giving birth in July when she lost her baby, a boy she and her husband planned to name Jack.
READ MORE: There is no evidence that COVID-19 vaccines reduce fertility. This is what fuels the myth
Now Harrison and Nipper are sharing their stories as they try to convince pregnant women to get the COVID-19 vaccine to protect themselves and their children. Their warnings came amid a sharp increase in the number of seriously ill pregnant women, resulting in 22 pregnant women dying of COVID in August, a record one month.
“We are committed to doing everything in our power to educate and protect our boy because no other family has to go through this,” Kipper said of herself and her husband.
Harrison said she will “follow through” that pregnant women are vaccinated “because it could literally save your life.”
Since the start of the pandemic, health officials have reported more than 125,000 cases and at least 161 pregnancy deaths from COVID-19 in the United States, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And over the past few months, hospitals and doctors in hot spots of the virus have reported a sharp increase in the number of seriously ill pregnant women.
Due to the fact that only 31% of pregnant women nationwide are vaccinated, the CDC issued an urgent recommendation on September 29, in which it recommended getting vaccinated. The agency warned that COVID-19 during pregnancy could cause premature birth and other adverse outcomes, and stillbirth has been reported.
Dr. Akila Subramaniam, assistant professor of maternal and fetal medicine at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, said there was a marked increase in seriously ill pregnant women at the hospital in July and August. She said a study there showed that the delta variant of COVID-19 is associated with an increased risk of serious illness in pregnant women and premature birth.
“Is it because the delta variant is simply more contagious, or is it because the delta variant is more serious? I don’t think we know the answer to this question, ”Subramaniam said.
When COVID-19 vaccines became available to pregnant women in their states this spring, Harrison, 36, and Nipper, 29, decided to wait. The injections did not receive final approval from the FDA, and pregnant people were not included in the studies that led to the emergency authorization, so the initial recommendations did not provide a complete vaccination recommendation for them. Pfizer’s drugs were formally approved in August.
The women live on opposite sides of the Alabama-Georgia line, an area that has been hit hard by the delta this summer.
While Harrison had to turn on life support, Nipper’s symptoms were more subtle. At the eighth month of pregnancy, she lost her sense of smell and had a fever. The symptoms quickly disappeared, but Jack did not seem to be as sick. She tried a caffeinated drink: nothing. She went to a hospital in Columbus, Georgia to monitor the fetus, where the nursing staff broke the news: Baby Jack is gone.
“He was supposed to be born in three weeks or less,” Nipper said. “And so that they tell you that there is no heartbeat and no movement …”
Nipper’s doctor, Timothy Villegas, said testing showed the placenta itself was infected with the virus and showed signs of inflammation similar to the lungs of people who died from COVID-19.
According to Villegas, the infection likely caused the child’s death, as it affected his ability to receive oxygen and nutrients. The doctor said that he has since learned about similar cases from other doctors.
“We are at the point where everyone starts raising red flags,” he said.
WATCH: Only 32% of pregnant American women are vaccinated, with the race gap widening.
In western Alabama, Dr. Cherie Melton, a family medicine physician specializing in obstetrics and teaching at the University of Alabama, said she and her colleagues had about half a dozen unvaccinated COVID-19 patients who lost their unborn babies to miscarriages. or stillbirth, a problem that has worsened with the spread of the delta.
“It’s absolutely heartbreaking to tell my mother that she will never be able to pick up her living child,” she said. “We’ve had to do this very often, more than I remember in the last couple of years.”
Melton said she encourages every unvaccinated pregnant woman she treats to get vaccinated, but many haven’t. She said rumors and misinformation were the problem.
“I get everything from, ‘Well, someone told me this could cause future infertility,’ to ‘This could hurt my baby,’ she said.
Nipper said she would like to ask more questions about the vaccine. “In hindsight, I know I did everything I could to give him a healthy life,” she said. “The only thing I didn’t do, and I have to carry with me, is that I didn’t get the vaccine.”
Returning home from the hospital with a healthy child, Harrison says he feels deep gratitude, mild with survivor’s guilt.
“I cry all the time. Just little things. Feed her or hug my 4 year old baby. Just the thought that they will have to live life without me, and now it is the reality of many people, ”said Harrison. “It was very scary and all of this could have been prevented if I had been vaccinated.”
Associated Press author Jay Reeves of Tuscaloosa, Alabama contributed to this report.