Caring for a newborn is challenging for many reasons – but adding a pandemic to the mix often means extra stress. We sat down with Dr. Angela Douglas, a NICU and pediatric hospitalist who cares for some of OHSU’s tiniest patients in the OHSU Doernbecher NICU at Marquam Hill and Hillsboro Medical Center locations, to learn how families can best protect themselves and their newest members.
Which special precautions should parents and caregivers take when preparing to deliver their baby?
First of all, congratulations! This is an exciting and stressful time, and it can be even more stressful to worry about COVID-19 safety precautions when planning your delivery. Thankfully, we have a dedicated and knowledgeable team of infection prevention specialists who have worked since the beginning of the pandemic to create and continually update policies and processes according to the latest evidence and CDC recommendations to keep everyone safe.
Many hospitals have restrictions currently on who is able to come to the hospital to accompany a patient. If friends or family are coming into town before delivery, clearly communicating those policies is helpful so no one is taken by surprise. Expect that all people must wear masks inside hospital buildings, including inside the patient room when hospital staff are present. Most hospitals are also testing the birthing parent for COVID-19 prior to delivery as a standard procedure to assist with infection prevention measures.
It’s important to know that it is safe to come into the hospital to deliver your baby, and you and your baby will be well cared for with the full spectrum of services that you may need for your comfort and to address any complications, just like before COVID-19.
Pregnant people are at higher risk for COVID-19 complications and should strongly consider getting their vaccine as soon as possible. While the initial clinical trials did not include pregnant people, more recent studies have not identified any problems in pregnant people who have received their vaccines. Talk with your trusted medical provider about your individual situation if you have any questions.
Have any changes been made to try to limit the number of days a patient stays in the hospital?
Our goal is always to get babies (and patients of all ages) home as soon as it’s safe to do so. This goal has prompted pioneering programs like Growing @ Home in the NICU. We work with every family to determine when it is safe to discharge according to the unique situation of each baby and parent.
What happens if a baby contracts COVID-19?
Fortunately, COVID-19 hasn’t made kids as sick as adults, and, overall, the risk of infants getting very sick is low, though it’s certainly not zero. Babies who have needed to be admitted to the hospital because of COVID-19 – particularly those who need a breathing tube and ventilator – typically have other medical problems causing lung disease. These babies are at higher risk for complication with ANY respiratory infection. Most babies with COVID-19 have no symptoms or have cold symptoms like runny nose, cough and fever. Some babies have no cold symptoms but have vomiting and diarrhea and are at risk for dehydration. Treatment of COVID-19 in babies is mostly about attending to symptoms until the illness resolves on its own.
What about once babies leave the hospital and head home?
Continue with all of the normal precautions you take with a new baby – washing your hands, limiting the number of people coming by and asking sick visitors to come back when they’re feeling better. While COVID-19 tends to not cause severe illness in babies, many other common viruses do. The precautions put in place to help slow the spread of COVID-19 have drastically decreased the transmission of other viruses, like flu and RSV, that commonly cause hospitalizations in infants. As physical distancing restrictions are being loosened across the country, we’re likely to see a resurgence. In addition to good hand washing, you can also protect or “cocoon” your baby from some of these serious illnesses by getting yourself and others who will have contact with your baby vaccinated against flu each year and have an updated booster for pertussis (whooping cough).
Connect with other parents (virtually) by joining the OHSU Baby Club!
One question we’ve gotten a lot during the pandemic is who families should allow into their homes to help them care for their baby. Frequently, these are grandparents who are at very high risk of severe disease if they contract COVID-19. Families were coming up with plans for quarantining and limiting other interactions, which may be difficult with different individual circumstances. The answer is getting simpler now as more and more people get vaccinated, and we highly encourage everyone to do so in order to more safely increase the size of their “village” or support system.
It’s also okay to take advantage of the slower, quieter pandemic times and enjoy this special time with your baby. They don’t stay little like this for long, and before you know it, you’ll be learning whole new sets of parenting skills!