Pregnancy-related deaths of Black people drives increase in 2020, CDC study shows

Pregnancy-related deaths increased the first year of the pandemic, with Black people dying at three times the rate of white people, according to a federal report released Wednesday.

In 2020, 861 people died of maternal causes nationwide, a rate of about 24 per 100,000 births. In 2019, there were 754 deaths, a rate of 20 deaths per 100,000, according to the report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention National Center for Health Statistics.

The greatest increase was among Black people, with 55 deaths per 100,000 births compared to 44 deaths per 100,000 the year before.

Hispanic people saw 18 deaths per 100,000, compared to 12 deaths per 100,000 in 2019. The rate among white people increased from 18 deaths per 100,000 to 19 per 100,000.

The increases among Black and Hispanic people were statistically significant, the researchers said, while the increase among white people was not, and the risk of death increased with age.

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Dr. Allison Bryant, senior medical director for health equity at Mass General Brigham health system, said the results show there is a long way to go to achieve equity.

“It's disheartening, but it's not shocking. We've been in this for a long time. And we've seen these patterns for a long time,” she said. “It's disheartening that we haven't gotten where Black women deserve to be.”

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Bryant, an obstetrician and gynecologist, said she would like to see further breakdowns of the data to show specific maternal mortality causes, and how COVID-19 may have disrupted equity efforts or contributed to deaths as pregnant people are more vulnerable to the virus.

Perinatal epidemiologist Dr. Cynthia Gyamfi-Bannerman, chair and professor of obstetrics, gynecology and reproductive sciences at the University of California, San Diego, also said she was concerned by the findings, and wants more data to ascertain specific causes that may have contributed to the increase during the pandemic.

“It's very concerning that the numbers appear to be going up, and we definitely have a long way to go,” she said. “We really need to understand what the drivers are, and we really need to get this under control.”

She noted the increases could also be due to previous undercounting of pregnancy-related deaths, and that disparity is a complex issue.

“Several elements are concerning. First, that there's an overall increase, and second, that there’s an increase that we continue to see with Black women,” she said. “The whole problem is systemic. It can't be ignored as a systemic problem, which is why the solutions are equally complex.”

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Reach Nada Hassanein at or on Twitter @nhassanein_.