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Maternal Deaths Rose Dramatically During Pandemic, CDC Study Shows

The maternal death rate rose 89% from 2018 to 2021, and racial disparities continued to widen, according to a new CDC study.

New figures offer a grim picture of the state of maternal health in the U.S. during the COVID-19 pandemic, with the maternal mortality rate increasing by 38% from 2020 to 2021 as racial disparities in outcomes continued to widen.

The latest figures on maternal mortality released Thursday by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show the overall maternal death rate increased from 23.8 deaths per 100,000 live births in 2020 to 32.9 deaths per 100,000 in 2021, marking a 89% increase since 2018.

A total of 1,205 women in 2021 reportedly died either during or within 42 days of the end of their pregnancy, according to the analysis, compared with 861 women in 2020 and 754 in 2019. Before COVID-19, the average number of women who died each year from complications related to pregnancy or delivery had remained around 700.

Findings of the report are based on data collected from the CDC’s National Vital Statistics System, which includes only maternal deaths linked to a pregnancy or its management and not deaths from accidental or incidental causes.

The rate of maternal deaths increased across all racial and ethnic groups in 2021, but has disproportionately affected women of color, particularly Black women, who had the highest mortality rate compared to Hispanic and non-Hispanic white women,

The maternal mortality rate among non-Hispanic Black women rose by 26% from 2020 to 2021, from 55.3 deaths per 100,000 live births to 69.9 deaths per 100,000. Among non-Hispanic white women, rates increased by 39% from 2020 to 2021, from 19.1 deaths per 100,000 to 26.6 deaths per 100,000.

Andria Cornell, associate director for Women’s and Infant Health at the Association of Maternal and Child Programs, says such racial disparities are rooted in a system based in structural racism that stakeholders have only just begun to acknowledge and address.

“There is an environment now where public health professionals, knowledgeable about this influence, can’t confront antiquated or harmful institutional practices and policies and propose changes they know will help because they are being hamstrung by the politicization of terms and different interpretations of events in history,” Cornell says. “We are overdue in confronting hard truths, and until we do, we as a nation will continue to nibble at the edges of this crisis.”

For the second straight year, Hispanic women had the largest increase in maternal mortality rates, rising 54%, from 18.2 deaths per 100,000 in 2020 to 28 deaths per 100,000 in 2021, according to the study.

The study found maternal mortality increased by age, with the rate among women 40 and older increasing by 28% in 2021 to 138.5 deaths per 100,000 live births. The rate among women ages 25 to 39 increased by 37% to 31.1 deaths per 100,000 in 2021, while the rate among women under age 25 had the largest increase of any age group studied in 2021, rising 48% to 20.4 deaths per 100,000 compared to 13.8 deaths per 100,000 in 2020.

Study researchers say COVID-19 likely accelerated the rise in maternal mortality in 2021. “Both the number and percentage of maternal death records mentioning COVID-19 among the causes of death were greater in 2021 than in 2020,” a CDC spokesperson said in an email response to questions.

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