The U.S. maternal mortality rate, already far higher than peer countries, soared during the pandemic.
More than 1,200 women in the U.S. died of complications arising from pregnancy or childbirth in 2021, a 40% jump from 2020, according to data released Thursday by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That amounts to 32.9 deaths for every 100,000 live births.
The spread of COVID-19 was partly responsible for the grim statistic, with about a quarter of 2020 and 2021 deaths attributed to the virus, according to an October report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office. However, the new data suggest little progress has been made on other factors adding to the uniquely high U.S. maternal mortality rate.
Before the pandemic a quarter of pregnancy-related deaths could be attributed to suicide, overdoses or other mental-health conditions, the CDC said in September. The group said more than 80% of the fatalities were preventable.
Long-marginalized groups continue to suffer the most. The 2021 death rate for Black mothers was 69.9 deaths per 100,000 live births, more than double the rate for White mothers. The year-over-year jumps for all groups were “significant,” according to the report.
About a quarter of maternal deaths occurred during pregnancy and another quarter within a week of childbirth, the CDC found in a 2017-2019 study. The remaining 50% of deaths occurred in the first year of motherhood. After suicide, excessive bleeding, heart issues, and infections were the top killers.
Wider access to insurance coverage to improve prenatal and follow-up care, and increasing transportation to medical facilities could help lower the death rate, according to the CDC.
Other studies have suggested that the U.S. could make better use of programs which have helped reduce fatalities elsewhere, such as the widespread use of midwives, universal health care and maternity leave. The country’s mortality rate is more than triple the rate of Canada, eight times the rate of the UK and nearly 11 times the rate of Australia, according to 2021 data from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
In June the White House released a plan for addressing the high death rate among new and expectant mothers, including calling for states to extend Medicaid coverage from two months to one year postpartum. It also requested $470 million for initiatives such as implicit bias training for health providers and research and data collection.