July 23, 2020

Van Hollen, Warren, Murray, Lawmakers Urge HHS to Address the Needs of Pregnant People during the COVID-19 Pandemic, Combat Maternal Mortality Crisis

U.S. Senators Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), and Patty Murray (D-Wash.) sent a letter to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) urging the agency to strengthen its efforts to protect pregnant people during the COVID-19 pandemic and expressing concern over reports that the political needs of the President were being prioritized over the public health needs of vulnerable populations.

"We understand the unprecedented challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic have tested and strained our public health system. But in responding to these numerous and pressing challenges, the federal government cannot lose sight of its obligation to safeguard the health of our most vulnerable populations during the COVID-19 pandemic, including pregnant individuals," the lawmakers wrote. "A federal COVID-19 pandemic response without concerted attention to maternal health will only exacerbate the maternal mortality and morbidity crisis plaguing our nation."

The senators encouraged HHS to focus especially on racial and ethnic disparities, which are driving both COVID-19 outcomes and maternal health outcomes in the United States. In particular, Black and Indigenous women in the United States are much more likely to die from pregnancy-related complications than white women, and women of color suffer disproportionately high rates of maternal morbidity. Early data also show significantly higher rates of infection and death from COVID-19 among communities of color. According to the latest COVID-19 information from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), pregnant women are more likely to be hospitalized and are at higher risk for intensive care unit admissions than nonpregnant women. The CDC also found that Hispanic and Black pregnant women were disproportionately infected by COVID-19. As of July 16, 2020, over 12,000 pregnant women have tested positive for COVID-19 and 35 pregnant people have died

The senators also raised concerns about reports of the Trump Administration sidelining scientists and public health experts, including a recent report that senior officials at HHS accused the CDC of "undermining the President" when it released the latest information on pregnant women. This "represents a dangerous public health policy process at the Department, in which the President's bad moods and political needs are prioritized over the needs of the people of this country, and especially pregnant people and other vulnerable populations," wrote the lawmakers.

"It is only with concerted effort--and prioritizing public health over politics--that we will be able to successfully navigate the concurrent public health emergencies of COVID-19 and maternal mortality," the senators concluded.

The senators urged HHS to improve data collection and public health communication, expand surveillance efforts, ensure the proper inclusion of pregnant people in COVID-19 clinical trials, and address racial disparities in health care outcomes. They requested a response no later than July 31, 2020 to better understand how HHS is addressing this issue and how Congress can support broader efforts to respond to the public health emergency on behalf of pregnant people and their families. 

Along with Senators Van Hollen, Warren, and Murray, the letter was signed by U.S. Senators Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.), Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), Cory Booker (D-N.Y.), Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.), Tim Kaine (D-Va.), Tina Smith (D-Minn.), Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), Kamala Harris (D-Calif.), Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.), and Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.)