Greer Mellon had just started trying to get pregnant in November when she went to get her COVID-19 booster shot at a site run by NYC Health + Hospitals in the Bronx. As she walked into the clinic, she noticed a sign on the intake booth with several screening questions. One of them was, “Are you pregnant or considering becoming pregnant?”
Mellon asked the nurse administering her shot why they screened for pregnancy and said she was shocked by the nurse’s response.
The nurse “said that if I was considering getting pregnant, she would recommend waiting and not getting the vaccine,” Mellon recalled in a recent phone call. “She also mentioned that she tells people who come in who are pregnant or breastfeeding that she thinks it's better to wait than to get the vaccine while they're pregnant or breastfeeding.”
On Monday, WNYC/Gothamist visited the vaccine hub at Bathgate Contract Postal Station Business Service Center to confirm this messaging. Asked if the vaccine was safe for pregnant women, a nurse administering the shots said, “We don’t have enough research.” Similarly, a staff member doing intake said that there could be unknown side effects.
Those statements are incorrect and defy health guidance, both on the city and federal level. Officials have recommended COVID-19 vaccines during pregnancy for months. But another pregnant person who spoke to WNYC/Gothamist about getting vaccinated at a separate city-run site said the staff there also defied established health guidance.
If you’ve had a similar experience, we want to hear from you. Email us at email@example.com with the subject line: Pregnant Vaccine.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention officially began recommending vaccination against COVID-19 for pregnant and breastfeeding women last August, noting that a growing body of evidence showed it was safe and there was not an increased risk of miscarriage among pregnant women who took the shots. The CDC has maintained this guidance, saying “data suggest that the benefits of receiving a COVID-19 vaccine outweigh any known or potential risks of vaccination during pregnancy.”
Likewise, the New York City health department recommends COVID-19 vaccines to people “who are pregnant, recently pregnant, breastfeeding or wanting to get pregnant.” Its website also references studies showing that breastmilk can deliver antibodies to a newborn, potentially warding off coronavirus infections.
Research also shows that pregnant women are at higher risk for severe illness or adverse pregnancy outcomes if they do contract the coronavirus. For instance, an April 2021 study of 2,130 pregnant women in 18 countries found that such infections were associated with higher rates of maternal mortality, preeclampsia and preterm birth. A recent study out of Scotland also found that women infected with COVID-19 within a month of giving birth were more likely to have a stillbirth or infant death.
“Broadly, we feel that every woman should have a vaccine and that being unvaccinated is potentially a huge detriment to the pregnant woman,” 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.
When told about patients’ experiences, the city said that its COVID-19 vaccine sites all follow the same standards.
According to Stephanie Guzman, a spokesperson for NYC Health + Hospitals, the questions on the intake form are not intended to discourage vaccination and that the Bathgate site uses “the same registration process on the same platform as every [NYC health department] vaccination site where we inquire about pregnancy and intention to become pregnant; always offering vaccines in either case.”
What To Expect When Expecting And At A Vaccine Site
It’s unclear whether anyone who’s pregnant has been turned away or decided not to get vaccinated at the Bronx site Mellon visited. But Mellon, who is now 13 weeks pregnant, said the nurse’s sentiments were strong enough to prompt her to lie about trying to start a family at the time.
“I felt pressured to say no in order to actually get the vaccine,” Mellon said. “But now that I found out that I am pregnant, I'm really glad that I got it.”
Shirazian described Greer’s experience as “problematic” and said staff at the city’s vaccine clinics should be reminded of current health guidance.
“We have been trying very hard as a group, as OB/GYNs and as physicians, to make sure that women understand that the vaccine is safe in pregnancy and that it is recommended in pregnancy,” Shirazian said, noting that vaccine hesitancy among pregnant women is still an issue.
Guzman said the city asks about a patient’s pregnancy status as a standard part of the health screening at vaccine sites. Shirazian said the practice seemed reasonable, since asking about a person’s pregnancy status could be a valuable way to collect data on this population and track outcomes with the vaccines.
Sheena Otto, a baker from Bay Ridge, said she had no problem at the Essex Crossing hub on the Lower East Side when she went for a booster shot in October. “They did make a note that I was pregnant,” Otto recalled, adding, “It wasn’t anything weird.”
Yet, another pregnant person who spoke to WNYC/Gothamist about getting vaccinated at a city-run site while pregnant said she faced unnecessary questioning. The New York City health department specifies that pregnant women do not need to get permission from their doctors to be vaccinated. But public school teacher KC Wright said when she went for her booster shot at NYC Health + Hospitals’ Gotham Health clinic in Brooklyn on December 22nd, she was asked a question that seemed odd to her.
According to Wright, the nurse first asked if she had consulted with her doctor about getting vaccinated, and Wright said yes. Then she said the nurse followed up by asking if she had a letter of permission from her doctor to get the shot.
“I said no, but she gave it to me anyway,” Wright said. “But I thought that was really weird.”
Guzman did not directly respond to questions about what the nurse at Bathgate told Greer or WNYC/Gothamist. She also did not comment on the incident Wright described wherein she was asked for a note from her doctor.
“NYC Health + Hospitals encourages all eligible New Yorkers to receive their COVID-19 vaccines and booster shot to help protect against severe illness, including before, during, and after pregnancy,” Guzman said in a statement.
Guzman added that the city’s procedures at vaccination sites are in accordance with guidance from the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG).
ACOG has issued a set of recommendations for COVID-19 vaccine sites. One recommendation is that, “While pregnant individuals are encouraged to discuss vaccination considerations with their clinical care team when feasible, documentation of such a discussion should not be required prior to receiving a COVID-19 vaccine.”
ACOG and other medical organizations also issued a statement in December, saying:
“We continue to strongly urge all eligible individuals — especially those who are considering pregnancy, pregnant, recently pregnant, and lactating — to be vaccinated against COVID-19.”