Updated: Feb 16, 2022
Author: Shwanika Narayan
Published: January 19, 2022 | Updated: Jan. 21, 2022
Maria Vega made the financially tough choice to leave her fast-food job and become a stay-at-home mother in October 2020, in the middle of a global health pandemic and the parallel economic crises it unleashed.
The fact that Vega was pregnant with her third child helped make her decision a little easier.
“I found out I was pregnant in August of 2020,” the 33-year-old Half Moon Bay resident said through a Spanish translator. “As an essential worker, I’m happy I made the decision to stay home because I wanted to limit my interactions with people and be healthy.”
New research suggests Vega was right to lean on her instincts.
A Sutter Health study released last month found that Latinas were more than twice as likely than their white counterparts to contract COVID-19 during pregnancy, increasing their risk for premature deliveries, stillbirths and even dying in childbirth. While the study was conducted from May 2020 to December 2020, it remains relevant as the highly contagious omicron variant continues to surge in the Bay Area and across the country, its lead author says.
“Although the coronavirus had not yet mutated into the omicron variant during the time of the data collection, the results of the study are still relevant, and if not more important, given how contagious and transmissible this variant is,” Alice Pressman, research director at the Sutter Institute for Advancing Health Equity, told The Chronicle in an email.
Pressman’s team of researchers conducted coronavirus testing on 17,446 women who delivered babies at Sutter Health’s 18 birthing centers in Northern California. The testing, which was conducted before and at delivery, showed that 460 women, or 2.6% of the screened patients, were infected with COVID-19 at the time they gave birth.
Latinas were 2.4 times more likely than white women to have had active COVID infections, the study found.
The factors researchers observed were all about contact with other people — questions ranged from how many people patients lived with to whether or not they had to go to work.
Latino patients were much more likely to self-report living in households with more than five other members, and more likely to report having been exposed or thinking that they had been exposed to someone who had the coronavirus probably because of essential work, Pressman said.
Research shows that COVID-19 continues to disproportionately affect communities of color in multiple ways.
An earlier study that UC Davis released in January 2021 found that more than half of Latina moms in Yolo and Sacramento counties cut back on food purchases and missed rent payments during the pandemic, exacerbating their struggles. Researchers surveyed 70 Latina mothers from March 18 to June 5, 2020, after the shelter-in-place orders first took effect in California.
“Latino families are fighting the pandemic on multiple fronts, as systemic oppression has increased their likelihood of contracting the virus, having complications from the virus and having significant economic hardship due to the virus,” Leah C. Hibel, associate professor of human development and family studies at UC Davis and the study’s lead author, said in a statement when the study was released.
This was true for Vega. Her family shares their crowded home with four relatives, she said. Her husband continued with his restaurant job and, while shelter-in-place rules limited his interactions with customers, he couldn’t avoid interacting with his co-workers.
“Even though they were following strict social distancing rules, I was stressed out,” Vega recalled. “What if he caught the virus, and what if I caught it?”
That didn’t end up happening. Vega gave birth to a healthy baby girl, Estrella, in April 2021 at Stanford Children’s Health in Palo Alto. Vega was unvaccinated at the time, mostly because the vaccine wasn’t widely available then, she said, but she got both doses soon after. She considers herself lucky for not contracting COVID-19.
While the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has determined the vaccine is safe for pregnant women and protects against serious coronavirus infections and adverse birth outcomes, only 42.2% of pregnant people, or 2 in 5 pregnant Americans, were fully vaccinated during pregnancy or before getting pregnant as of Jan. 8. For pregnant Latinos, the vaccination rate was lower — 37.7%.
Today, Vega stays home caring for her three children while her husband works in various roles in the restaurant industry. If it wasn’t for Bay Area nonprofits including Ayudando Latinos A Soñar, or ALAS, which operates a food pantry and provides other resources, Vega said her family would have had a harder time getting by.
She often tunes into a weekly support group on Zoom, joining her fellow Latina mothers in the Half Moon Bay area for counseling, resources and a sense of community amid a pandemic that has disproportionately afflicted them. The mothers support group that ALAS started in September 2020 out of a shared sense of isolation now has up to 40 participants.
“I don’t know what I’d do without them (ALAS). They help with food, mental health services and most importantly community — creating a sense of belonging for us,” Vega said. “My family could not have managed without them.”