March 26, 2020 / 10:00 PM / 14 days ago

Solo childbirth, halted fertility treatments: women's healthcare takes hit from coronavirus

(Reuters) - In New York, a mother-to-be faces childbirth without her husband. In Texas, hundreds of women seeking abortions are turned away. Across the country, women are facing postponed mammograms and suspended fertility treatments.

FILE PHOTO: Two women speak as they practice social distancing in a nearly empty Sheep Meadow in Central Park during the outbreak of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in New York City, New York, U.S., March 25, 2020. REUTERS/Mike Segar/File Photo

The global coronavirus pandemic has infected at least 73,000 people and killed more than 1,000 in the United States as of Thursday afternoon. As U.S. authorities have told residents to remain at home and limited all but essential healthcare, the directives aimed at saving lives have hit women particularly hard, healthcare providers and patients said.

Women tend to carry more of the burden of caring for their children and elderly relatives - multiplying the strain the pandemic has put on their physical and mental health, experts said.

“We’re just hearing from a lot of women who are hitting a tipping point trying to do all of this. You just can’t get all the help that you normally would,” said Maureen Sayres Van Niel, a psychiatrist in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and president of the American Psychiatric Association’s women’s caucus.

Anxiety and depressive disorders occur twice as frequently in women as in men, said Van Niel. Public health protections such as restricting social outings, group exercise and in-person therapy sessions to keep the virus at bay are exacerbating those problems, she said.

One of her patients worries about being stuck in a stress-filled home with her abusive husband.

Other women face the anxiety of going through childbirth without their partners. In New York City, the U.S. epicenter of the pandemic, two hospital networks have implemented strict visitor policies prohibiting birthing partners.

When Dominique Claire Shuminova, 34, began having contractions on Wednesday, her husband stayed home with their 5-year-old son while she walked to a Bronx hospital nearby.

In the labor and delivery ward, Shuminova had her temperature taken and was given a COVID-19 test. She heard medical staff congratulate a woman who had just given birth alone.

“It struck me how sad and painful it is not to be able to share that moment with your partner,” said Shuminova, who nonetheless was grateful for a hospital bed and efforts to keep mothers and babies safe.

REPRODUCTIVE HEALTH ACCESS RESTRICTED

In Texas, hundreds of women had their appointments canceled at abortion clinics this week after the state’s attorney general said he would prosecute abortion providers under the state’s mandate to avoid all but essential medical services, said Molly Duane, a lawyer with the Center for Reproductive Rights.

Her organization and several others filed a lawsuit Wednesday night against Texas in U.S. District Court. Duane said she wrote the complaint while sequestered in her New York home with her 8-month-old baby on her lap.

Ohio, Louisiana and Mississippi are among the other states where officials have moved to block abortion access as a nonessential medical service or to free up protective equipment during the coronavirus outbreak.

Still more women have been devastated to learn their fertility treatments would be delayed under a coronavirus guideline released last week by the American Society for Reproductive Medicine. The group urged doctors to suspend new fertility treatments and cancel planned embryo transfers, and promised to revisit the guidelines by March 30.

“Of course there are unhappy patients,” spokesman Sean Tipton said in an email. “There are also plenty of patients who are supportive of our recommendations. None of us are happy. Nothing about this situation is good.”

Many healthcare providers have shifted to video or telephone appointments in the age of the coronavirus.

Damara Jenkins, a registered nurse and certified nurse-midwife at the University of Louisville in Kentucky, said the OB/GYN & Women’s Health department is doing essential appointments in person and answering other questions by video or phone.

Expectant parents Chris and Katie Muscarella in Brooklyn have hired a doula whose coaching will be entirely online. Expectant mother Emily Wolfer in Ohio took a live-streamed breastfeeding course.

Van Niel, the psychiatrist, said remote sessions lack the intimacy and body language of in-person visits.

Still, they can provide some helpful relief.

Rachel Rattner, 52, who battles an autoimmune disease in Los Angeles, did a recent session with her hypnotherapist using the Zoom video app from her parked car. She said the experience was a light moment at a difficult time.

“She made me get out of the driver’s seat and sit in the passenger seat,” Rattner said. “Because she didn’t want me to one day sit in the driver’s seat and go into a trance.”

Reporting by Sharon Bernstein in Sacramento, California, and Amanda Becker in Washington; Editing by Colleen Jenkins and Rosalba O'Brien

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