When Meaghan Whyte snagged an appointment for her first COVID-19 vaccine last February, she couldn’t believe her luck. “I was so excited to be getting it,” said Whyte. At the time, only select groups of New Yorkers were eligible, including people with certain “underlying conditions.” Whyte qualified because she was pregnant. She said she discussed it with her doctor, who “was very encouraging.”
But staff at the city-run vaccine site at Hillcrest High School in Jamaica, Queens cast doubt on her decision. When the nurse administering the vaccine found out Whyte was pregnant, she called over her supervisor, Whyte recalled in a recent interview with Gothamist. The supervisor then asked if Whyte had a note from her doctor — something that wasn’t required to get a shot.
“The supervisor explained to me that the reason they were questioning me is that the vaccine causes infertility,” Whyte said, citing a myth back then that’s still circulating a year later.
At the time, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said that, based on the way the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines worked, they were “unlikely to pose a specific risk” to pregnant people or their fetuses. And there was already research showing that pregnant people were at higher risk for severe disease if they contracted the coronavirus.
But limited data was available on the safety of COVID-19 vaccines for pregnant and breastfeeding people during those early days because they were left out of clinical trials. It’s an omission that the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) protested while the vaccines were being tested. Back in 2020, OB/GYN’s wrote letters and op-eds urging for this group to be included.
Although there is now more robust vaccine safety data based on pregnant individuals who have already gotten the shots — and clear public health guidance recommending that pregnant individuals get vaccinated — ACOG says that a lack of early research on this population spawned mixed messaging and misinformation that has been difficult to overcome.
“The downstream effect was that obstetrician-gynecologists across the country were not able to confidently counsel patients and encourage them to get vaccinated despite knowing the serious risks pregnant people face if they contract the virus,” said Dr. Christopher Zahn, vice president of practice activities for ACOG. “Misinformation regarding the vaccines was allowed to fill the data gap during those critical months and surely resulted in some of the vaccine hesitancy we’ve seen among this population.”
After Gothamist published an article in early February about staff at a city-run vaccine hub in the Bronx discouraging people who were pregnant or breastfeeding from getting COVID-19 shots, Whyte and several other New Yorkers reached out to share similar stories. These anecdotes spanned private, state and city-run clinics in the five boroughs. They took place as far back as February 2021 and as recently as December.
The prevailing guidance around vaccinating pregnant people against COVID-19 has evolved significantly during that time. Now, the World Health Organization, the CDC, the New York City health department, the New York state health department and a range of other health organizations all unequivocally recommend that pregnant and breastfeeding people get vaccinated. But it took a while for them to get on the same page.
For instance, in January 2021, the World Health Organization’s statement on the Moderna vaccine was that, “While pregnancy puts women at a higher risk of severe COVID-19, the use of this vaccine in pregnant women is currently not recommended, unless they are at risk of high exposure (e.g. health workers).”
ACOG and the Society for Maternal-Fetal Medicine responded at the time that the vaccines should not be withheld from pregnant individuals who choose to receive them. They said that, “given clear evidence of the dangers of COVID-19 in pregnancy, an absence of data demonstrating adverse effects associated with the vaccine in pregnancy, and in the interest of patient autonomy, ACOG and SMFM recommend that pregnant individuals be free to make their own informed decisions regarding COVID-19 vaccination.”
Gothamist asked the city health department about Whyte’s experience and that of another reader who said she felt discouraged while getting vaccinated at a city-run site in Queens in October. “The health department urges all New Yorkers, including pregnant people, to get vaccinated against COVID-19,” Michael Lanza, a spokesperson for the health department, said in a statement.
He added, “Our vaccine site staff are regularly trained to adhere to consistent language grounded in clinical guidance, not influenced by their personal opinions or preferences.”
From Discouragement to Outright Refusal
Some who spoke to Gothamist about their experiences getting vaccinated while pregnant said they simply received extra questioning about their decision from those administering the shots. Others faced more extreme forms of resistance or even outright refusal.
Anna Krieger was in her first trimester when she went with her wife to LaSante Health Center in Brooklyn to get her first dose in May 2021. Before making the appointment, she consulted with her doctor and received an email from him, which she shared with Gothamist. He cited ACOG and other health organizations that were offering interim recommendations for vaccination in pregnancy at the time, noting that research was still evolving.
When Krieger arrived at LaSante with her wife, she had to answer a list of screening questions, including whether she was pregnant. “I remember thinking at the time that I wanted to help contribute to the data around people who are pregnant,” Krieger said in a recent call with Gothamist. “And I thought, well, this is a great opportunity.”
But the person behind the front desk saw it differently. After finding out Krieger was pregnant, the staff member said she had to consult with her colleagues, Krieger recounted. Over an hour later, Krieger and her wife were ushered into a separate room to see a nurse. “She was like, ‘Sorry, I can't give you a vaccine because of where you are in your pregnancy,’” Krieger recalled.
Krieger’s wife, Rosie Guerin, said she then asked to talk to the nurse’s supervisor. “The supervisor came in, guns blazing, and clearly did not want to be challenged on this,” Guerin said. “She basically said, ‘No, I'm not giving you the vaccine.’”
When Krieger showed the supervisor the email from her doctor, the staffer then asked to speak to the doctor on the phone — a request Krieger declined. After further debate, Krieger ultimately left without getting her shot. She said when she got outside, she got a call from the clinic saying they changed their mind — but by that time she had decided to go elsewhere.
She basically said, ‘No, I'm not giving you the vaccine.'
LaSante did not respond to multiple requests for comment. But Guerin shared a letter describing the incident that she sent to a doctor at the practice shortly after the visit.
“The whole irony is that the people opting into this provide the information for the people who are coming up behind,” Guerin said. “So, you would think that people opting in would be a wonderful and welcomed thing.”
But others also said they didn’t always feel welcome in vaccination clinics while pregnant. Earlier on in the rollout, an administrative employee with the Metropolitan Transportation Authority said she had to lie to get her COVID-19 shot.
The employee, who said she didn’t want to share her name because it might jeopardize her career, went through an online portal to make her vaccine appointment at the MTA headquarters in Brooklyn in March 2021. She said she initially checked a box saying she was pregnant and received a message saying she was not eligible for the vaccine. She said when she filled out the form again, leaving that box blank, it allowed her access.
Once she arrived at the appointment, the employee said she was given another screening form that asked again if she was pregnant. “Furthermore, it had you actually list the date of your last menstrual cycle, which I thought was pretty crazy,” the MTA employee said. “I honestly just made one up, and I got vaccinated.”
The MTA did not respond to a request for comment on what its vaccination policies were at the time or what they are now, but a spokesperson confirmed that the agency continues to provide COVID-19 vaccines to employees.
Expecting Parents Get Conflicting Advice
Others said they were simply made to feel insecure about their decision to get vaccinated while pregnant — a familiar feeling for expecting parents.
Allison Valchuis, like Whyte, got her first shot in February 2021, when her pregnancy made her eligible for the then-hard-to-schedule doses in New York. She got vaccinated at the state-run mass-vaccination site at the Aqueduct Racetrack after consulting with her doctor. Going in, she said she was confident in her decision to get the shot. But the nurse administering it “asked a number of times if I was sure I really wanted to do that,” Valchuis recalled in an interview. “I said yes, but it just left me feeling very confused.”
Asking if someone is pregnant or considering becoming pregnant is a standard health screening question at city- and state-run vaccine sites. According to state guidance for health workers, if someone answers yes, they should follow up by asking if the person wants to consult with a health care provider about the risks and benefits of getting vaccinated, but should not require it.
“Our mass vaccination sites are a safe, welcoming place for pregnant New Yorkers to get the COVID-19 vaccine because of the state’s education and training for staff and administrators as well as access to onsite clinicians, if that is requested by the individual getting vaccinated,” Samantha Fuld, a spokesperson for the state health department, said in a statement.
Valchuis and others interviewed for this story said they have also received conflicting health and safety advice while making other types of decisions during pregnancy.
“Like, ‘We think you can take those, but we're not sure if you can. And don't take those, but we don't really have any data on it,’” Valchuis said, mimicking the kind of health advice she sometimes received before giving birth to her daughter in October.
A lack of clinical trial data makes it difficult to provide pregnant people with safety information on everything from over-the-counter medications to hair dye, said Dr. Taraneh Shirazian, an OB/GYN at NYU Langone Health and director of global women's health at the NYU School of Global Public Health.
“Clinical trials should always include pregnant people, but historically they have not,” Shirazian said.
She added that while there’s now sufficient evidence to say the COVID-19 vaccines are safe for pregnant people, “it's hard to get people to change those old opinions.”