An Edmonton woman who contracted COVID-19 while pregnant has a school project to thank for her decision to get vaccinated. Now she is urging other pregnant Albertans to heed the advice of health officials and get the shot.
After becoming pregnant with her first child in late 2020, Cheryl Franko was initially worried about getting the COVID-19 vaccine, with her concerns centred around its safety and potential harm to her baby.
“I was scared that [the vaccine] was new and I really didn’t know anything about it,” Franko said.
But a school assignment put her fears to the test.
Franko, 33, was taking a communications studies course at MacEwan University and had to write a research paper on a controversial topic. The part-time student, who works in air traffic control, decided to delve into vaccinations and pregnancy.
She pored over available research and the results of clinical trials.
“The more I read, the more I learned,” she said. “That was sort of my, ‘OK. Just go get it. It’s safe. There are people that are doing fine with it.'”
Concerns over unvaccinated pregnant women
Franko received her first dose in March 2021, then her second in June.
On Aug. 23, just days before her due date, she developed shortness of breath and a runny nose. The next day, she tested positive for COVID-19, one of a small number of individuals to experience a breakthrough infection.
And on Aug. 27, she gave birth. Her daughter, Emmylou, tested negative for the virus.
“I was so grateful that I had got the vaccine and that I could come home with my baby,” Franko said.
Pregnant women who are not vaccinated are at increased risk of severe disease with COVID-19, said Dr. Stephanie Smith, an infectious disease physician at the University of Alberta Hospital.
According to Alberta Health Services, 14 pregnant women with COVID-19 were admitted to intensive care units between mid-July and the end of September. All were unvaccinated.
In early September, a pregnant Saskatchewan woman died from COVID-19 in an Edmonton ICU. The woman’s family says the mother of eight was unvaccinated when she contracted the disease.
In general, a pregnant woman has a four times higher risk of requiring hospitalization than someone who is not pregnant, said Smith.
‘Grateful’ to get the vaccine
Smith also noted that a number of studies have shown pregnancy is not a risk factor for breakthrough COVID-19 infections.
“We know that people who are pregnant and unvaccinated are at risk for severe disease, but it does not appear that they are at any increased risk for getting reinfected or getting a breakthrough infection if they’ve been vaccinated,” Smith said.
Dr. Erin Bader, an obstetrician-gynecologist at Edmonton’s Royal Alexandra Hospital, said it’s expected that pregnant women may be concerned about the potential impact of vaccines on their babies, but the evidence shows that it’s safe.
“We have data on pregnant women and their babies, and there has not been an increased risk in the outcome studies to babies that were born to moms who had the vaccine in pregnancy,” said Bader.
Mothers can even transfer some vaccine protection to their babies, she added.
Alberta’s fourth wave of the pandemic has been the worst for pregnant women in her hospital, Bader said.
“The combination of decreased public health restrictions as well as the increased contagiousness of the delta variant has led to a lot more pregnant women becoming sick with COVID-19,” she said.
For new mom Franko, COVID-19 meant she wasn’t able to cuddle her baby girl for a full week. But when she finally did, it was the best day of her life.
“I just was so grateful that I got the vaccine,” she said.