NEWARK, NJ — As though being an expectant mother wasn’t stressful enough, pregnant women, and their physicians, have a whole new host of anxieties to contend with in the era of COVID-19. 

While it’s unclear how the virus affects pregnant women as opposed to the general population, what medical experts do know is that to keep patients safe, telehealth should be utilized as often as possible. To help physicians with this transition, the Greater Newark Health Care Coalition developed 1,000 “new mom kits” for Newark Beth Israel Medical Center, Clara Maass Medical Center and University Hospital to distribute to patients in their third trimesters. 

GNHCC, a nonprofit focused on improving quality and access to health care in the greater Newark area, was awarded $100,000 from the New Jersey Pandemic Relief fund for the initiative, which includes a free diaper bag, blood pressure monitor, digital thermometer, a cloth mask and a set of educational materials on taking fetal kick count and temperature. 

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The kit also provides information on preeclampsia, which GNHCC Executive Director Keri Logosso said tends to be the underlying condition that leads to poor outcomes or death in new moms. Preeclampsia is a prenatal complication that causes high blood pressure and damage to another organ system, and one which has risen more than 25% in pregnant women in the past 20 years, according to the Preeclampsia Foundation. 

In Newark, which Logosso said reflects New Jersey’s disproportionately high maternal mortality and morbidity rates among black women, monitoring maternal health during the pandemic is an ongoing concern. Many women may skip appointments due to fear of contracting the virus at their doctor’s office, especially in a city so severely impacted. 

“It’s a heightened level of stress on all people that has an impact on pregnant women, that can affect the mom,” Logosso said. “Economic hardships, things like food insecurity, job loss, domestic violence as a result of the pandemic are present as well.”

Newark’s last read-out was 7,059 positive cases and 569 deaths, the highest of any municipality in the state — and though few may worry the way a mother worries, numbers like these, as well as data on COVID-19's racial disparities, are just cause to fret.

“We have a data platform we think we can use to see if visits are going down based on clinical and Medicaid data we’re able to see, and we’d also like to look at telehealth utilization over time and see what those outcomes look like,” Logosso said.  

GNHCC is also a partner of the New Jersey Department of Health’s Healthy Women Healthy Families grant initiative, which works toward improving maternal and infant health outcomes, and plans to use the four community health workers as an opportunity to work with a broader network of partners to ensure patients aren’t refusing care due to fear of contracting the virus. 

Even with the support of the “new mom” kits, Logosso said the collective work to be done is far from finished. Going forward, GNHCC will be looking at ensuring access to telehealth, which can be a challenge in a city where only about 82% of households have a computer. 

The long-term financial and regulatory elements that allow for and pay for telehealth will also play a role in how communities access health care. Smaller practices, for instance, may struggle to navigate the transition more than an institution like a major hospital, putting some community physicians. 

“There are a lot of questions we’re looking at, such as can women access telehealth whether it’s through Wi-Fi, the actual hardware, scheduling, privacy concerns. Plus the medical supplies they need to really make the visit meaningful,” Logosso said.