Pregnant women are at higher risk for severe infection from COVID-19, said State Health Commissioner Judy Persichilli. She, therefore, encourages them to speak to their doctors about getting vaccinated.

But despite the protection, COVID vaccination rates among pregnant women, especially women of color remain low in New Jersey.

Dr. Juana Hutchinson-Cola, division chief of Female Pelvic Medicine and Reconstructive Surgery and OBGYN at Rutgers Robert Wood Johnson Medical School, said every pregnant woman is concerned about her baby. The inability to assess long-term effects is something many cannot overcome.

Barriers to healthcare are another reason why pregnant women of color cannot embrace the vaccine. But Hutchinson-Cola said the state is working to change that. There is also mistrust and misinformation in the media, in the communities, and with families, plus the history of abuse for minority populations that also make them very hesitant to get the jab.

All of these concerns have led to a decrease in vaccination rates among pregnant women in New Jersey.

However, she said it's important to communicate with women and provide credible information and try to understand their perspective as to what exactly is this individual concerned about, said Hutchinson-Cola.

By having the ability to allay those fears, she believes vaccination rates will increase and that goes to really having the time to communicate with women.

She added the risks for pregnant women not getting vaccinated are huge, especially when dealing with this highly contagious virus.

Hutchinson-Cola said a normal, healthy pregnant woman has respiratory changes to begin with, which makes it harder to breathe as she gets later in the term. COVID-19 is a respiratory illness.

When pregnancy is associated with COVID-19 disease, most of the time these women are sick, but many times it requires ICU critical care admissions, ventilation assistance, and even death. COVID infection during pregnancy can also be associated with pre-term delivery or stillborn births. These rates are higher with pregnant women because of their baseline status as well, she said.

"It is crucial that they're vaccinated because we have seen that vaccinated individuals have less of these risks for ICU admissions and assisted ventilation and even death. They have a milder form of the disease," Hutchinson-Cola said.

State and local officials are doing outreach with pregnant women, especially those in underserved communities. Hutchinson-Cola believes the state is collaborating with community-based organizations.

For example, the New Jersey Black Women Physicians Association, of which Hutchinson-Cola is a member, collaborates with the state, goes into communities, and provides vaccinations.

She said they make flyers to let them know they're coming. "We show up  to do vaccinations or even testing where people are seeing individuals who relate to them, and I think that's helpful."

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), about 30% of pregnant women in the U.S. are vaccinated against COVID-19. Of this group, 50% were vaccinated prior to pregnancy and 50% during pregnancy.

Hutchinson-Cola believes we can do better as a society to get these numbers up.

"I think it's important for community organizations to remain involved and to get in their community where we can relate to and communicate to individuals that are still hesitant, be able to answer their questions directly, and find out what is holding them, and be able to provide vaccines in a timely fashion," Hutchinson-Cola said.

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