Latinas comprise disproportionate share of COVID cases among pregnant women

"I was 37 weeks pregnant and I was terrified."

July 13, 2020, 4:15 AM

Everything was perfect for Alfredo Chable and his wife, Juanita Marchán. The Mexican couple had been buying baby clothes, toys and preparing their son for the arrival of their second child when Marchán felt body aches and ran a high fever 36 weeks into her pregnancy in mid-June.

Chable rushed his wife to the hospital in Houston and said goodbye to his wife, a day before they were supposed to celebrate their 11-year wedding anniversary. Two days later, after his wife tested positive for the coronavirus, Chable received the worst news of his life: Juanita Marchán had passed away from virus complications.

PHOTO: Zully smiles with her sons Neysel, 10 weeks, and Junior, 7, on June 25, 2020, in Stamford, Conn. She, Junior and his father Marvin survived Coronavirus in April but recovered and are now adjusting to life post-COVID.
Zully smiles with her sons Neysel, 10 weeks, and Junior, 7, on June 25, 2020, in Stamford, Conn. She, Junior and his father Marvin survived Coronavirus in April but recovered and are now adjusting to life post-COVID. On April 1 Zully, then almost 8 months pregnant, was hospitalized for COVID-19 at Stamford Hospital, where she was intubated and given an emergency C-section. Neysel was born healthy but couldn't go home. After more than three weeks in a coma at the hospital ICU, Zully responded to experimental antibody blood plasma transfusions and was able to return home.
John Moore/Getty Images

"I can't believe this happened to my family," said Chable. "My heart is broken."

Chable's son is still in the neonatal intensive care unit after doctors performed an emergency cesarean section on Marchán the day before she died.

Marchán represents a growing number of Latinas who comprise a disproportionate share of coronavirus cases according to the latest pregnancy data released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

To date, the CDC said it is aware of 11,312 pregnant women who have tested positive for COVID-19. Of that amount, Hispanic and Latino women accounted for more than 4,500 cases, with 3,252 hospitalized and 31 who have died.

Dr. Atul Nakhasi, a primary care physician and policy adviser at the Department of Health Services in Los Angeles, the nation's second-largest health system, said multiple factors can explain the data released by the CDC.

"Pregnant women access health care more regularly, they need to come in for their ultrasounds or prenatal appointments, they need to come in regularly and routinely to check on mom and check on baby," Nakhasi told ABC News. "They're in the health care setting which is arguably one of the most high-risk environments."

According to a morbidity and mortality study mentioned in the CDC report, among reproductive-age women with COVID-19, pregnancy was associated with hospitalization and increased risk for intensive care unit admission, and receipt of mechanical ventilation, but not with death.

"Pregnant women had more severe outcomes than non-pregnant women, they were hospitalized at five times the rate of pregnant women with COVID-19 compared to non-pregnant women with COVID-19 and they were more likely to go into ICU for critical care," said Nakhasi. "But the interesting thing is pregnant women with COVID-19 have lower mortality rates. Are doctors being extra cautious and upgrading them to critical care status and maybe protecting their lungs early by putting in a breathing tube? "

For 20-year old, Jatziry Ramos who tested positive for the coronavirus late into her pregnancy, carrying her baby to term was her priority.

"I was 37 weeks pregnant and I was terrified," said Ramos. "All I wanted was for my baby to be born healthy and at the right time."

A pregnant woman wearing a face mask and gloves holds her belly as she waits in line for groceries at St. Mary's Church in Waltham, Mass, May 7, 2020.
Charles Krupa/AP

Ramos gave birth to her son in late April without any complications. He was tested for COVID-19 soon after being born but the result was negative.

"He's my baby, he's my everything," Ramos told ABC News. "He needed to be OK."

Though much is still unknown about the risks of COVID-19 to newborns, they can be infected with the virus that causes COVID-19 after being in close contact with an infected person, according to the CDC. There may also be an increased risk of adverse pregnancy outcomes, such as preterm birth, among pregnant people with COVID-19.

For Latinos, the new data is a grim reminder of how they shoulder a disproportionate share of coronavirus cases.

Statistics released by the CDC last month showed the percentage of Hispanic/Latino Americans making up coronavirus cases is almost equal to whites -- around 34% -- despite Latinos being a significantly smaller portion of the population.

"People are starting to finally deconstruct the data but for a long time we've known anecdotally, that the Latino community has been disproportionately affected by the coronavirus," said Ana Marie Argilagos, president of Hispanics in Philanthropy, a fundraising and grant-making organization which seeks to strengthen Latino leadership.

"Historically, Latinos have had less access to quality health care and because of our cultural backgrounds, we tend to not let our families out on the streets which means a lot of overcrowding."

"My parents work in restaurants and I think that's how I got infected," said Ramos. "They have to work no matter what the circumstances are."

Argilagos also says that because Latinos typically work essential jobs, they cannot stay at home to telework.

"Only 16% of Latinos can work from home," Argilagos told ABC News. "They work in agriculture, construction, transportation. They are invisible in terms of receiving protections and support but they are the ones keeping the country going."

Dr. Nakhasi says the CDC data is not surprising.

"We've seen this impact all segments of the population within the Latino or the Black community," Nakhasi told ABC News. "Whether you're pregnant, not pregnant, older or younger, coronavirus is disproportionately affecting these communities in every way."

"It is sad and unfortunately, it's not surprising but these results are a call-to-action to be honest," said Nakhasi. "We have two lives at stake -- a mother and a baby. We have to protect the most vulnerable within our communities of color."

Chable's family is asking for donations to help with the unexpected medical bills and funeral expenses.

"I am praying every day," said Chable. "I am praying for God to give me the strength I need to raise my sons without my wife. I don't know why this happened to us but I have faith in God."

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