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Maternal deaths in the U.S. rose in the first year of the pandemic, CDC report says

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

But now we turn to a grim new report by the CDC's National Center for Health Statistics. The number of pregnant women and new mothers who died due to pregnancy-related causes jumped in 2020 compared to the year before. To tell us more about that data, we're joined by NPR health correspondent Rhitu Chatterjee. Rhitu, good morning.

RHITU CHATTERJEE, BYLINE: Good morning.

MARTIN: This is all bad news. Maternal deaths, as we know, though, in the U.S. have been rising for many years. How do we interpret this new data? Is this just a continuation of that trend?

CHATTERJEE: So, yes, maternal deaths in the U.S. have been rising for a while. In fact, they've almost doubled in the past 30 years. But in 2020, they rose by nearly 20% compared to the year before, and that was a little higher than the rise in 2019. And the biggest jump was seen in Black women, which widened an already big disparity between Black and white women and Hispanic women, too, experienced a bigger jump in maternal deaths compared with white women who, by the way, did not see a significant rise.

MARTIN: Why? Why do women of color suffer most in this?

CHATTERJEE: So the report doesn't tell us the causes of death. It doesn't give us any insight into the potential reasons for the sharp rise. But the president and CEO of the nonprofit March of Dimes, Stacey Stewart, told me that the pandemic probably played a role, partly due to COVID itself.

STACEY STEWART: We know that unvaccinated pregnant women are at far greater risk of severe illness and hospitalization and even death if they contract COVID.

CHATTERJEE: And remember, Rachel, that very few, if any, pregnant women were vaccinated in 2020. And Stewart says Black and Hispanic women were likely hit harder for all the same reasons these communities saw higher infections and deaths overall.

STEWART: Women of color and people of color generally being more likely to be essential workers, more likely having to work outside the house, around others, not being able to socially distance themselves and all of that.

CHATTERJEE: And they're more likely to live in multigenerational households. And they've also been hit harder by the economic impacts of the pandemic, and we know that socioeconomic factors play a big role in high maternal mortality.

MARTIN: And also limited access to health care, right?

CHATTERJEE: Yeah, that's a big part of it, and I should add that access to good care was already a problem in these communities. And in 2020, it just got worse because people had fewer in-person appointments.

MARTIN: So how do you begin to wrap your arms around fixing this problem if you're policymakers or at the CDC working on this?

CHATTERJEE: So I put that question to Dr. Catherine Spong. She heads the OB-GYN Department at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center. She said when thinking of solutions - and there are many - we need to keep this in mind.

CATHERINE SPONG: Somewhere around 70% of pregnancy-related deaths occur after delivery.

CHATTERJEE: And a lot of women lose access to health care in the postpartum period because Medicaid, which pays for over 40% of deliveries in the U.S., doesn't cover postpartum care. So one important solution is to expand Medicaid coverage to make sure postpartum period is covered.

MARTIN: NPR's Rhitu Chatterjee, thanks.

CHATTERJEE: Thank you, Rachel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.