Patients' heavy breathing during labor may boost COVID-19 risk

Women's heavy breathing during labor could increase the risk of COVID-19 transmission, underscoring the importance of ensuring healthcare workers in obstetrics and gynecology have proper personal protective equipment, according to a study published Sept. 9 in Obstetrics & Gynecology. 

Researchers analyzed respiratory emissions of three women who tested negative for COVID-19 and had routine vaginal deliveries at Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center in Los Angeles.

Researchers found the speed of each woman's respiratory emissions became progressively faster as labor progressed. Emissions traveled at an average speed of 1.8 meters per second during labor, about 30 percent faster than during normal breathing and at least 6 percent faster than when someone coughs. 

"These particles travel far and with great speed and remain suspended in the air," study author Rashmi Rao, MD, assistant clinical professor of obstetrics-gynecology at UCLA's David Geffen School of Medicine, said in a Sept. 14 news release.

At present, N95 masks are not recommended for use in labor and delivery settings, as the CDC and World Health Organization do not identify vaginal delivery as a high-risk or aerosol-generating procedure.

"This study can be used as support that all labor and delivery units should provide full PPE [with N95 masks] for their staff by encouraging the designation of vaginal delivery as a high-risk and potentially aerosol-generating procedure," Dr. Rao said.

The study did not assess whether infectious virus particles, or aerosols, were present in respiratory emissions. Researchers said they hope to demonstrate this finding in a future study.

To view the full study, click here.


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