During the first year of the pandemic, the rate of maternal mortality in the U.S. per 100,000 live births increased from 20.1 deaths in 2019 to 23.8 deaths in 2020. The new report, published on Wednesday by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), uses the World Health Organization (WHO) definition of maternal mortality, which is defined, in part, as “the death of a woman while pregnant or within 42 days of termination of pregnancy.” Maternal mortality is a complex issue, but a relatively large share of pregnancy-related deaths (52% of them) occur postpartum, according to the Commonwealth Fund.
Unfortunately, the upward trend in maternal deaths is also not new. The report stated that in 2020, 861 people in the U.S. were identified as having died of maternal causes. That’s up from 754 people in 2019, and 658 people in 2018.
The report is based on data in the CDC’s National Vital Statistics System, which factored in people of all age groups and racial groups. The increase in maternal mortality was observed across the groups, with sharp disparities across racial groups. The report found that in the U.S., the maternal mortality rate for Black people was 2.9 times higher than it was for white people, at 55.3 deaths per 100,000 births. “Rates for non-Hispanic Black women were significantly higher than rates for non-Hispanic white and Hispanic women,” the report reads.
Though lower than the rate for Black people, Hispanic people still had an increased risk of maternal death. The report found 18.2 deaths per 100,000 births in 2020, a 44% increase from 2019. The report also noted that the increased maternal death rate for Black and Hispanic people was statistically “significant” while the increased rate for white people was “not significant.” (The increase of deaths per 100,00 births rose from 17.9 to 19.1 from 2019-2020 among non-Hispanic white people.)
The report also confirmed that maternal mortality rates increase with age. People aged 40 and older had the highest mortality rates, with 107.9 deaths per 100,000 live births in 2020. This marked a 43% increase from 2019. According to the Mayo Clinic, pregnant people in this age group are more likely to experience miscarriage and stillbirth, pregnancy-related complications that might lead to a C-section delivery, or have a baby with chromosome abnormalities, such as Down syndrome. As might be expected, younger people, classified in this report as under the age of 25, had the lowest maternal mortality rate, with 13.8 deaths per 100,000 live births.
While the new CDC report does not specifically point to COVID-19 as having an impact on maternal health, the CDC has been clear about how seriously the virus can affect pregnant people. “Although the overall risks are low, people who are pregnant or recently pregnant are at an increased risk for severe illness from COVID-19 when compared to people who are not pregnant,” the CDC said previously. The center also said that this group faces a higher risk for preterm birth (which is defined as giving birth prior to 37 weeks), stillbirth, and other pregnancy complications. (And as SELF has previously reported, the COVID-19 vaccine does not cause an increased risk of preterm and is safe for pregnant people.) In general, many of the maternal deaths that occur postpartum happen within the first week and are the result of infection, high blood pressure, and severe bleeding, according to The Commonwealth Fund.