Knowing the risks
"There is currently no evidence that pregnant women are at higher risk of severe illness than the general population," Hayakawa says. "There is also no evidence suggesting the virus causes an increased risk of miscarriage."
But Hayakawa says pregnant women face a greater risk of respiratory illnesses, such as pneumonia, because their uterus pushes up a number of organs as it grows.
"We know that pregnant women can be affected by respiratory infections in general due to changes in their bodies during pregnancy. So it's very important to be careful and protect yourself against the virus."
He adds that the choice of treatment for pregnant women is limited, as their condition rules out the use of certain types of medicine. Avigan, which some clinical trials have shown is effective against the coronavirus, is one of them.
What measures can pregnant women take to protect themselves from the virus?
Stick to basics
On April 1st, the Japanese Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare announced a set of guidelines to help pregnant women protect themselves against infection:
- Avoid crowds.
- Frequently wash your hands.
- Avoid the three Cs: closed spaces, crowded places, and close-contact settings such as close-range conversations.
- If there is a suspected infection at home, stay away. Avoid sharing towels and silverware.
The ministry also recommends women displaying symptoms to contact the consultation center for people with potential COVID-19 exposure at the nearest public health center.
These symptoms include a fever of 37.5 degrees Celsius or higher lasting two days, general weariness, and shortness of breath.
The ministry is urging businesses to establish special paid leave systems for pregnant women, while also implementing telework measures and staggered hours. The ministry has also started sending two cloth masks to pregnant women every month.
Experts agree that staying at home is the best way to avoid infection. This has led some pregnant women to skip prenatal checkups at the hospital.
"Those visits are important," Hayakawa says. "I understand why some women would want to limit their exposure, given the current circumstances. But you should talk to your obstetrician before skipping. Ask whether it is safe for you to increase the intervals between your visits."
The Tokyo Metropolitan Government announced on Friday that it will provide pregnant women with 10,000-yen vouchers to use for taxis when traveling to and from hospitals for checkups.
Another worry is that the pandemic has forced hospitals and local governments to cancel many antenatal classes, which help prepare women for motherhood. The classes include lessons on how to change diapers and how to bathe and feed babies.
To help expectant mothers, some people and organizations are providing support online.
Midwife and YouTuber Shiori-nu has started a series of videos to guide mothers through the weeks before and after giving birth. She reassures women about the mental and physical changes they should expect, as well as offering a number of practical pointers on early motherhood.
Local governments are also making their own efforts. Iruma City of Saitama Prefecture has uploaded videos on how to bathe a baby and how to prepare milk on its official YouTube channel. An official says that even in times of crises, maternity care cannot be sidelined so the city is trying to help while also minimizing the risk of infection.
According to Hayakawa, if a mother tests positive for the virus, the baby will be isolated upon birth until both it and the mother are no longer infected.
And even if the mother is not infected, Hayakawa says childbirth during the pandemic will be a decidedly different experience than it would be under normal circumstances.
"Babies are vulnerable. The more people in the room, the higher the risk of infection. You don't want to risk that. No one besides the medical team should be in a delivery room."
He adds, "I know it will be hard not to have loved ones by your side but we are in a time of crisis. We need to do our best to contain the virus for those newborn babies."