PLoS Med. 2022 Jan 10;19(1):e1003884. doi: 10.1371/journal.pmed.1003884. eCollection 2022 Jan.
BACKGROUND: The COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted maternity services worldwide and imposed restrictions on societal behaviours. This national study aimed to compare obstetric intervention and pregnancy outcome rates in England during the pandemic and corresponding pre-pandemic calendar periods, and to assess whether differences in these rates varied according to ethnic and socioeconomic background.
METHODS AND FINDINGS: We conducted a national study of singleton births in English National Health Service hospitals. We compared births during the COVID-19 pandemic period (23 March 2020 to 22 February 2021) with births during the corresponding calendar period 1 year earlier. The Hospital Episode Statistics database provided administrative hospital data about maternal characteristics, obstetric inventions (induction of labour, elective or emergency cesarean section, and instrumental birth), and outcomes (stillbirth, preterm birth, small for gestational age [SGA; birthweight < 10th centile], prolonged maternal length of stay (≥3 days), and maternal 42-day readmission). Multi-level logistic regression models were used to compare intervention and outcome rates between the corresponding pre-pandemic and pandemic calendar periods and to test for interactions between pandemic period and ethnic and socioeconomic background. All models were adjusted for maternal characteristics including age, obstetric history, comorbidities, and COVID-19 status at birth. The study included 948,020 singleton births (maternal characteristics: median age 30 years, 41.6% primiparous, 8.3% with gestational diabetes, 2.4% with preeclampsia, and 1.6% with pre-existing diabetes or hypertension); 451,727 births occurred during the defined pandemic period. Maternal characteristics were similar in the pre-pandemic and pandemic periods. Compared to the pre-pandemic period, stillbirth rates remained similar (0.36% pandemic versus 0.37% pre-pandemic, p = 0.16). Preterm birth and SGA birth rates were slightly lower during the pandemic (6.0% versus 6.1% for preterm births, adjusted odds ratio [aOR] 0.96, 95% CI 0.94-0.97; 5.6% versus 5.8% for SGA births, aOR 0.95, 95% CI 0.93-0.96; both p < 0.001). Slightly higher rates of obstetric intervention were observed during the pandemic (40.4% versus 39.1% for induction of labour, aOR 1.04, 95% CI 1.03-1.05; 13.9% versus 12.9% for elective cesarean section, aOR 1.13, 95% CI 1.11-1.14; 18.4% versus 17.0% for emergency cesarean section, aOR 1.07, 95% CI 1.06-1.08; all p < 0.001). Lower rates of prolonged maternal length of stay (16.7% versus 20.2%, aOR 0.77, 95% CI 0.76-0.78, p < 0.001) and maternal readmission (3.0% versus 3.3%, aOR 0.88, 95% CI 0.86-0.90, p < 0.001) were observed during the pandemic period. There was some evidence that differences in the rates of preterm birth, emergency cesarean section, and unassisted vaginal birth varied according to the mother’s ethnic background but not according to her socioeconomic background. A key limitation is that multiple comparisons were made, increasing the chance of false-positive results.
CONCLUSIONS: In this study, we found very small decreases in preterm birth and SGA birth rates and very small increases in induction of labour and elective and emergency cesarean section during the COVID-19 pandemic, with some evidence of a slightly different pattern of results in women from ethnic minority backgrounds. These changes in obstetric intervention rates and pregnancy outcomes may be linked to women’s behaviour, environmental exposure, changes in maternity practice, or reduced staffing levels.