'A gap to close': Pregnant Ontarians still lag behind in COVID-19 vaccination rates, despite higher risk from virus

When Holland Landing resident Cyndi Brown found out in April that she was pregnant, she was at first hesitant to get the COVID-19 vaccine.

“Immediately, I started thinking, am I going to get the vaccine or not?” Brown told CTV News Toronto. She wasn’t anti-vax, per se, she said, but she certainly wasn’t sure.

“I felt, if there were going to be any adverse reactions toward the fetus, I don’t know how I would forgive myself.”

But after speaking with her doctor and learning more about the mRNA vaccine, Brown came to the conclusion that the benefits outweighed any undescribed risk.

“It was a scary decision to make,” Brown said. “But I made it because I was being told all the time, it’s worse to catch COVID-19, unvaccinated, being pregnant.”

Brown was among a sizeable group of pregnant Ontarians hesitant to get immunized against the virus; despite being classified as “highest-risk,” and warned against a higher chance of hospitalization, need for critical care, premature delivery and even death, pregnant individuals still have a relatively low rate of COVID-19 vaccination.

Only 60 per cent of pregnant patients in Ontario were fully vaccinated as of Oct. 3, according to the ICES COVID-19 dashboard—much lower than the 81 per cent of the general eligible population at that time.

“It is certainly quite a bit lower than full coverage in the general population,” said Dr. Deshayne Fell, associate professor with the University of Ottawa’s School of Epidemiology and Public Health.

“We know that we still have a gap to close, and we know that it’s a really important gap to close because the risks of getting COVID-19 in pregnancy are real,” Dr. Jennifer Blake, CEO of the Society of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists of Canada (SOGC) said Wednesday.

Ontario’s Ministry of Health recommends COVID-19 vaccination as soon as possible for people in any stage of pregnancy, warning that infection while expecting can be severe.

“If you are pregnant and you get COVID-19, particularly in the later stages of pregnancy when the lungs are already being compressed by your belly, you are going to have a much tougher time with any respiratory infection,” Blake said. “Your life is at greater risk.”

According to figures released Monday, one in five of the most critically-ill COVID-19 patients in the U.K. were unvaccinated pregnant women. In the U.S., the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently issued an urgent health advisory recommending the vaccine to pregnant patients, because barely a quarter of pregnant Americans had received any doses of the vaccine while expecting.

Toronto family medicine obstetrics provider Dr. Tali Bogler, who co-founded the social media platform Pandemic Pregnancy Guide, stresses that that data support the safety of the COVID-19 vaccine in pregnancy.

“We have large data sets, almost 80,000 individuals who have received the vaccine during their pregnancy,” Bogler said. “Some of these babies are now six months of age, and overall there are no red flags in terms of safety issues in terms of the pregnancy itself, leading to more miscarriages or pre-term births, or any congenital abnormalities in the children.”

Now 33 weeks pregnant, Cyndi Brown is thankful she chose to be immunized in her first trimester.

“It amazes me that I was even hesitant in the first place, because he’s fine, he’s absolutely fine,” she said of her baby. “I’m so relieved, because now antibodies will be passed onto him.”

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