New Bay Area Parents Adapt to Changing Birth Landscape Under COVID-19

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New parents Erica Becks and Darryl Willis with their new baby daughter Emersyn Michelle Willis. (Courtesy of Erica Becks)

Erica Becks had it all planned out. The first-time San Mateo mom had organized an early baby shower, hired a doula and lined up all her people to be with her at the hospital for the birth.

"I had this dream of having my best friend there, my partner there, my doula there and my sister there," Becks said in a video interview with KQED during the final days of her pregnancy. "And now that has all been shattered."

Many activities have been canceled or put on hold during the coronavirus pandemic. But when it comes to giving birth, there’s no such thing as rescheduling, and expectant parents across the Bay Area have to adapt fast to these extraordinary times.

Due to the coronavirus pandemic, hospitals have been forced to change their maternity policies — like providing masks for women in labor and limiting access to delivery rooms. And as a result, pregnant mothers, like Becks, are dealing with a slew of unforeseen worries.

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"I'm getting anxious about weird things that I never thought I would be thinking about, like whether or not I want medical professionals to even be touching my baby," Becks said. "Or does the baby also need to wear a mask? Is that overkill?"

Becks says she turned to her San Mateo parents Facebook group for emotional support, like when it came to the tough decision of having to choose between her partner or doula’s company in the maternity ward.

"It’s hard to find other women who are in the same situation," Becks said. "And so I was actually really grateful that I found the group. Because I'm like, 'OK, I'm not alone.' "

Michele Berrios with her two daughters, 18-month-old Chiara Nazzarena Berrios, and newborn Francesca Carolyn Berrios (Courtesy of Michele Berrios)

Michele Berrios was also thrown for a loop by hospitals’ decisions to limit bedside support. The Alameda mom had been planning for a natural birth — birth without the use of pain medications — at Kaiser Permanente San Leandro Medical Center.

Berrios had relied on the help of her husband to get her through the delivery of their first child, 18 months ago, also through natural birth.

"I needed his support through every contraction of that 36-hour labor. He was there with me and was helping me through it," Berrios said. "And I can't imagine doing it without him."

So when Berrios started hearing rumors that hospitals were restricting visitor access to the labor ward, she panicked. She even added an advance directive to her birth plan, stating that if something were to go wrong during the delivery, the hospital had to save the child first.

"My husband was like, 'That's really scary.' But I said, 'It has to be done,' " Berrios said.

Berrios also started to think about alternatives. She asked Kaiser Permanente about the possibility of switching to a home birth.

"And they told me that if my gynecologist would deem it medically necessary and prescribe a midwife, that they would cover the home birth," she said.

Only about 1% of parents opt for home births in the United States. Most insurance policies won’t cover them, and they’re only advisable for low-risk pregnancies. But the coronavirus pandemic is fueling an interest in the time-honored tradition.

"There's definitely a slight uptick in the number of home births that are happening right now," said Berkeley-based midwife Morgan West, "but a massive uptick in the number of people inquiring about the possibility of a home birth."

Midwife Morgan West of Berkeley-based Hummingbird Midwifery says there's currently a spike in people interested in home births. (Courtesy of Morgan West)

Berrios quickly obtained letters of support from her gynecologist, found a midwife and got into gear to have her baby at home.

At 39 weeks and after 12 hours of labor, Berrios gave birth.

"Our baby girl was born at 5:38 p.m. on Saturday, March 21," Berrios said. "On my couch."

Shortly after baby Francesca was born, Berrios learned that she had been misinformed: Her health care provider does not, in fact, authorize home births. So Berrios and her husband may end up having to foot the $7,000 bill themselves.

Kaiser Permanente wouldn’t grant KQED an interview or comment directly on Berrios’ case.

But the company did issue a written statement rearticulating its no home birth policy.

"Our providers and hospitals offer many patient-centered options for delivery of their babies, and we are confident that we can keep new mothers and babies safe at delivery," the statement said. "We do not provide authorization for home births or other prenatal care outside of Kaiser Permanente."

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Berrios is currently fighting the denial of service. But she is full of hope.

"I feel so fortunate to not have fears and despair bogging us down," Berrios said. "That could be the case, and we don't feel that way."

Meanwhile, Becks gave birth to her daughter, Emersyn Michelle, on April 14. She said despite her fears, the birth went surprisingly smoothly at Sequoia Hospital in Redwood City with her partner by her side.

But there have been other complications since: Emersyn has trouble breastfeeding.

"She's been crying and fussy, and she hasn't been able to eat," Becks said.

Under normal circumstances, Becks said the doctor would have seen her right away. But she said office hours for non-essential services are reduced because of COVID-19. So she’ll have to wait.

To complicate matters, it's been hard to track down baby formula. Becks said bottles have been flying off store shelves during the pandemic. Luckily, she got help from friends, and now has enough to get by.

Becks called these "first-world problems" and said they pale in comparison to the joy she feels as a new mom.

"It's totally worth it, and I would do it all over again," she said. "Even in the midst of global pandemic."