Signs of hope as Israel's Covid-infected mothers give birth without sickness

More than 1.5 million coronavirus cases registered in the country in January

A health worker administers a dose of the Pfizer-BioNtech COVID-19 coronavirus vaccine to a pregnant woman at Clalit Health Services, in Israel's Mediterranean coastal city of Tel Aviv on January 23, 2021.  Israel began administering novel coronavirus vaccines to teenagers as it pushed ahead with its inoculation drive, with a quarter of the population now vaccinated, health officials said. / AFP / JACK GUEZ
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As Covid-19 rages across Israel, there are signs of hope at a maternity ward where infected women are giving birth without the sickness seen earlier in the pandemic.

Face masks and bottle teats are piled up at the entrance to the coronavirus maternity unit at Sheba Medical Centre, Israel’s largest hospital, where there are currently nine patients with their newborn babies.

“The likelihood of a woman being positive is much higher than in previous outbreaks,” said Prof Eyal Sivan, director of the hospital’s gynaecology and maternity centre.

“But all of them are feeling fairly well,” he said of patients who tested positive on arrival at the hospital near Tel Aviv.

While coronavirus regulations remain strict on the ward, where a nurse does her rounds in full protective gear, the patients are all expected to be home within days.

Supplies of medical equipment are stored in a side room, while nappies, tea and coffee are available in the corridor.

The situation stands in stark contrast to previous waves of the coronavirus in Israel, when doctors were seeing more premature births and pregnant women on ventilators.

“[It] makes life very difficult, because you’re actually treating two patients at the same time,” said Prof Sivan of monitoring a ventilated patient and her unborn baby.

The lack of severe symptoms currently seen on the ward could be down to a number of factors, including patients being vaccinated and some experiencing coronavirus for a second time.

Staff at Sheba Medical Centre prepare rooms in the dedicated children's Covid-19 ward. AFP

The dominant Omicron variant of Covid-19 is also associated with less severe disease, but its rapid spread has put Israel’s health system under strain.

The number of severely ill patients in hospital reached 1,135 on Monday, health ministry data shows, approaching the peak of 1,193 seen in January 2021.

The caseload, meanwhile, has smashed records.

Israel recorded more than 1.5 million coronavirus cases last month, out of a population of 9.4 million – nearly seven times the figures from January last year.

Everyone who tests positive must isolate for at least five days, which has led to staff shortages at Sheba and other hospitals.

Prof Tal Biron-Shental, director of obstetrics and gynaecology at Meir Medical Centre in Kfar Saba, called it a “crazy burden”.

“The main problem right now is not medical,” she said.

“People [are] working hours and hours, on Saturdays and Sundays, around the clock.”

Coronavirus in Israel - in pictures

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett admitted on Tuesday the surge of cases would continue, forecasting “another difficult week-and-a-half”. The government has not introduced significant curbs on daily life to stop the spread of coronavirus.

Despite the staffing pressures, Prof Biron-Shental said medics have become far better equipped to treat the virus.

“We feel much more confident knowing what to do with them,” she said, having gained a wealth of knowledge through treating patients and scientific studies.

While evidence cited by the World Health Organisation shows pregnant women are at a higher risk of developing severe symptoms than women of a similar age, research has also shown they can safely be vaccinated against Covid-19.

Despite this, international studies have shown lower vaccine uptake rates in pregnant women than the general population.

One of Prof Biron-Shental’s patients, Cristina Polunina, chose not to get the jab when it became available during her third trimester last January.

“I was scared that something would happen to the baby,” she said, after hearing mixed advice on television, before being hospitalised with Covid-19.

“I couldn’t breathe, I thought I would die,” said Ms Polunina, 40, who remembers coughing up blood.

She gave birth during her 10-day hospitalisation and recovered, along with her baby, Angela.

“If you want to see your kids grow up, you must take the vaccine – your life depends on it,” Ms Polunina said.

Prof Biron-Shental said most patients now follow her recommendation to get vaccinated.

The need to deliver babies early because of their sick mothers has “decreased dramatically”, she said. There are constantly a couple of patients with coronavirus, but they are all healthy.

Updated: February 06, 2022, 4:22 PM
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