Well-Being Longevity

Pandemic saw spike in US maternal mortality, especially among Hispanic mothers

“For the first time in more than a decade, the maternal mortality rate for Hispanic women during the pandemic was higher than that for non-Hispanic white women.”
pregnant woman in mask
A pregnant woman waits in line at a food pantry in Massachusetts in May, 2020. The Associated Press/Charles Krupa

Story at a glance

  • Since the overturn of Roe v Wade, the United States’s bleak maternal mortality rates have come under increased scrutiny.

  • Pre-pandemic, Black women were already three times more likely to die from a pregnancy-related cause than their white counterparts.

  • New data highlight to what extent the COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated racial disparities in maternal mortality.

On the heels of the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade, which secured a woman’s right to an abortion under federal law, new data released today show maternal mortality increased by 33 percent from 2018 through March of 2020, coinciding with the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

In the wider U.S. population, COVID-19 was associated with a much smaller 22 percent increase in overall excess death. 

The new estimate surpasses the previous total that showed an 18 percent increase in maternal mortality in 2020. Maternal mortality is defined as any death during pregnancy or within 42 days of childbirth. 

However, the new data show late maternal deaths, or those that occur any time between 42 days and one year post-childbirth, increased by 41 percent during this time. 

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Researchers stratified deaths by month (2018-March 2020 and April-December 2020) and saw the majority took place at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. Prior to the pandemic, there were about 17.4 maternal deaths per 100,000 live births recorded. During the pandemic, that total rose to nearly 24 maternal deaths per 100,000 live births. 

Published in JAMA Network Open, the data revealed sharp racial disparities in maternal mortality rates.

During the months studied, the death rate for Hispanic women increased by 74 percent. A 40 percent jump was seen among non-Hispanic Black women, and the lowest increase was measured among non-Hispanic white women. 

“For the first time in more than a decade, the maternal mortality rate for Hispanic women during the pandemic was higher than that for non-Hispanic white women, a shift that may be related to COVID and deserves greater attention moving forward,” said co-author Eugene Declercq in a statement. 

Data revealed Hispanic women tended to die from COVID-19-related factors at a higher rate than non-Hispanic Black and non-Hispanic White women, while indirect causes accounted for the largest relative increase in all maternal deaths. 

Researchers were unable to determine exact causes of death but hypothesized conditions exacerbated by COVID-19 could have played a role in increased mortality rates. 

Health system interruptions at the beginning of the pandemic might have also contributed, as disjointed care could have resulted in undetected risk factors or complications.

More research is needed to understand whether the rollout of COVID-19 vaccines or increased Medicaid coverage under the American Rescue Plan improved maternal death rates throughout 2021, authors concluded.