In mid-January, six months into her first pregnancy, Chaya Mehlman, an Orthodox Jewish woman who works as a nurse, got her first COVID-19 vaccine. But it was far from an easy decision: It took her over a month and dozens of consultations with family, friends, doctors, rabbis and other women to finally take the shot.
“I decided after all those recommendations that I am more scared of COVID-19 in this current moment than any possible rumors that were making me double-think my decision,” Mehlman wrote her 584 followers on Instagram, as she documented her journey.
In recent weeks, pregnant women in America and elsewhere have received mixed messages about whether the vaccine is safe for them. According to the Atlanta-based Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “only limited data” is available regarding the safety of various COVID-19 inoculations administered during pregnancy.
While “researchers have studies planned in people who are pregnant,” the initial vaccine trials could not include these individuals, the guidelines say. “CDC and the Food and Drug Administration have safety monitoring systems in place to capture information about vaccination during pregnancy and will closely monitor reports."
Still, there are many people who have stoked unfounded fears about the vaccines supposedly causing infertility, and anti-vaxxers have even claimed the shots could lead to miscarriages. But medical professionals and state officials in America are attempting to reassure women that the shot they can get – the mRNA vaccine which does not contain the live virus – is safe for them and their unborn babies.
Yair Stern, director of human resources at the Center for Health Education, Medicine and Dentistry, aka CHEMED, in Lakewood, New Jersey, says he has observed “natural pregnancy hesitancy” when it comes to the vaccine.
“Whenever you’re dealing with pregnant women, there is greater concern, and I think a valid greater concern,” Stern told Haaretz in a phone conversation last Friday. “Three or four weeks ago, some of the obstetricians were still not completely sold, but over the last three weeks, there's been a significant increase of risks [of COVID-19 infection] we feel are possible, based on the new strands [of the virus].”
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“For that reason, I think over the last two weeks, the obstetricians who were not necessarily pushing the patients to do it, have changed that message and really have been pushing their patients to get vaccinated,” he added.
On Friday morning, Stern and his team set up a special clinic and invited pregnant women from the area to get vaccinated. That day, over 150 of them showed up; another 100 received the shots at CHEMED on Sunday.
'Nonstop all night'
Before getting pregnant, Mehlman, 26, who goes by the nickname C.B., worked as a night-shift nurse in the oncology unit of a New York City hospital. When the coronavirus pandemic broke out last March, she found herself working long shifts and tending to almost three times as many patients as she had been assigned to before.
“I wanted to go to my doctor and ask him to get me anxiety medication to get me through work,” she told Haaretz, by phone. “The rapid responses and the cardiac arrests were nonstop all night.”
After her husband lost his job in the entertainment industry due to the pandemic, Mehlman had to keep working. When she found out she was expecting her first child, she was torn between her professional duties and her responsibility to keep her unborn baby safe.
“I was on the verge of quitting my job because of it,” she said. “I was starting to get nervous for myself.” Ultimately, Mehlman was placed on desk duty, where she can avoid direct interaction with patients during the remainder of her pregnancy.
When the vaccine first became available to health-care workers, Mehlman found herself faced with a dilemma. Her husband did not feel that she should get vaccinated, but her doctor encouraged it, while acknowledging the fact that not much information was available about the possible risks.
“I was crying and I came to work all emotional because I wanted to get it, my husband didn’t want me to get it, I’m terrified of COVID-19 and pregnant women are at a 5-percent increased chance of getting COVID-19,” she recalls. “I called a rabbi that my husband highly respects, and he said ‘follow your doctor.'”
It was only after she spoke with another pregnant, Orthodox health worker at her hospital that she made the decision.
“If a woman at my stage of pregnancy ends up with COVID-19, or ends up on a vent, there is a chance that neither the baby nor the individual are getting out of that,” Mehlman said. “So why risk both?”
Another Orthodox nurse, Joelle Harari-Chadow, told Haaretz that she too “thought about the pros and cons very heavily” before getting vaccinated.
Working in a Long Island facility with women who are giving birth, Harari-Chadow is expecting a second child. “We are very busy now because so many people got pregnant during quarantine,” she told Haaretz. “We’re seeing all the little COVID babies coming in.”
Although she doesn’t work directly with coronavirus patients, Harari-Chadow added, “every single mom that comes in to give birth has to get tested.”
“We see moms in such critical condition that we have to do an emergency delivery to get the baby out because the mom is decompensating and we want to save both baby and mom,” she explained. “I don’t want that to happen to me.”
When the vaccine became available, Harari-Chadow consulted with every gynecologist she knew. She asked them “what’s worse: taking the vaccine and not really knowing the outcome in the future, or worst-case scenario getting sick, getting COVID, being at home with your lungs not functioning properly, your heart not functioning properly, being hospitalized and going on a vent.”
She quickly came to the conclusion that the vaccine was more beneficial than risking contracting the coronavirus.
'All hands on deck'
Stern, from CHEMED, said he has been “pushing much harder on the messaging” to get pregnant women vaccinated. To do this effectively, he said, “understanding how they think and how they operate is integral.”
“It’s all hands on deck and that’s what we are doing right now,” he added.
The issue of inoculating pregnant women has come up frequently at the New Jersey medical center, where 70 percent of the employees are women. CHEMED serves both large Orthodox and Hispanic communities – staffers speak Spanish, Hebrew, Yiddish and other languages – but Stern stressed that he has not seen a difference in attitudes toward the vaccine when it comes to pregnant women.
“Is hesitancy higher or lower among Orthodox patients? I don’t see it,” he told Haaretz. “Anecdotally, we have not found that our Hispanic patients are more interested in the vaccine [than the Orthodox].”
The day Mehlman finally went to get her shot, she found herself crying at her desk. Due to restrictions on who can enter the hospital where she works, she couldn’t have her husband or any of her family members accompany her.
“I’m going to get this terrifying vaccine that I am all emotional about and not a single person, no support is going to be there,” she said. When her manager eventually joined her, they documented the occasion with pictures. In posting her vaccination story to Instagram, Mehlman wanted others to know “it wasn’t an easy decision”.
“The number of people that called me or texted me, or reached out to me to talk about it was at least 10,” she said. “I gave other people someone to ask about it. I didn’t have that.”
For her part, after getting her second dose, Harari-Chadow said that she “did it for my family, my community and my patients.”
“I might not know the effects of the vaccine, but I know it’s better than getting COVID-19,” she added.
Harari-Chadow said that many of her friends are either pregnant, thinking about getting pregnant, or breastfeeding. They now turn to her for advice on getting the shot.
“When the baby is out, a mom does everything possible to protect the baby always – seat belt, this, that,” she said. “So why not start protecting the baby from day one when the baby is inside?”