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Victorian hospitals where women give birth say patients are increasingly concerned about unvaccinated visitors, as midwives report a jump in home births due to virus fears and restrictive hospital rules.
The body representing Victoria’s state hospitals is warning of an influx in inquiries about hospital policies on unvaccinated visitors as it urgently calls for a consistent, statewide position.
Kerry Kempton with her newborn son Laith, weeks after giving birth while in isolation at the Royal Women’s Hospital.Credit:Joe Armao
And health workers say pregnant mothers worried about their greater risk of severe illness and hospitalisation if they catch COVID-19 are asking not to share rooms with unvaccinated people or their visitors.
Seismic shifts in hospital birthing processes during the pandemic are prompting pregnant mothers to opt for home births, with reports of a 30 per cent rise.
Kerry Kempton gave birth to her son Laith at the Royal Women’s Hospital about two months ago. She took precautions in the fortnight leading up to the birth to avoid catching COVID-19.
The fully vaccinated single mother got tested every 72 hours and visited only three places: her GP, the hospital and a shop to buy a baby capsule for her car. It was not enough.
Halfway through her 39 hours of labour, a doctor entered the room and told her she had been at a tier-1 exposure site – the hospital’s pregnancy clinic – which she had visited earlier that week. She would, the doctor said, have to instantly start a 14-day isolation period with her yet-to-be-born baby.
“I had a bit of a meltdown after that,” Ms Kempton said. “I had a lot of anger at that point against the COVID-positive person, but you have to remind yourself that you don’t know anything about the person. They may have been vaccinated … asymptomatic … you just don’t know.”
Midwives returned to the room in full PPE and helped her give birth to her son. For six days, mother and child were shut in their hospital room. Medical staff could only enter if they donned full PPE.
Ms Kempton chose not to send Laith to the nursery as he would have slept with other babies suspected to have had COVID or been exposed.
To leave the hospital building, she was told to use a special lift and was escorted out by a security guard.
While she was full of praise for the hospital staff and said she understood the need for the strict protocols, Ms Kempton said the process “was the hardest thing I’ve ever done”.
“It makes it harder when you have all these rules imposed on you,” she said. “You feel horrible.”
Neither she nor her son caught COVID.
Past president of the Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists Steve Robson said many pregnant women entered a self-imposed “lockdown” in the weeks before giving birth to avoid any complications with the process at hospital.
“If you’ve been a close contact, you might have to have special COVID precautions taken at the hospital, it disrupts any plans you have for birth.”
Citing research showing increased risk of severe disease for pregnant mothers, recently pregnant mothers and possible long-term problems for babies born to mothers testing positive, Dr Robson said women “have a right to be concerned about catching COVID in hospital”.
He said there was no clear advice from the government on how unvaccinated visitors should be managed at hospitals, making it difficult for managers to decide on the best course of action.
Victorian Healthcare Association chief executive Tom Symondson confirmed public hospitals caring for pregnant women, new mothers and newborns “are increasingly receiving inquiries about the policies and procedures in place for unvaccinated visitors”.
He said hospitals were handling unvaccinated visitors in different ways due to the lack of any Victoria-wide policy.
The state’s road map and the Chief Health Officer’s directions are silent on the issue of unvaccinated hospital visitors.
“A consistent, statewide hospital visitor vaccination policy would further reduce the risk of COVID-19 for our most vulnerable patients,” Mr Symondson said. “A statewide policy will be easier to communicate to the public and help to manage people’s expectations.”
Hospitals are adopting different policies on the vaccination status of visitors. For instance, while no unvaccinated visitor can enter The Alfred hospital, vaccinations are not mandatory for visitors at the Royal Women’s Hospital, Northern Health and St Vincent’s Private Hospital Melbourne, including those in maternity wards.
Some private hospitals are stricter, with Ramsay Healthcare, which runs some private maternity hospitals, adopting a mandatory vaccination visitor policy. Epworth, which runs the Freemasons maternity hospital, requires visitors to have a negative test result to enter.
Across the board, the number of hospital visitors is capped to one partner or support person during birth. They are screened for symptoms, wear a hospital-supplied mask and follow infection control measures.
Experiences like Ms Kempton’s are prompting some mothers to choose home births.
Liz Wilkes, the managing director of private midwife practice My Midwives, which serves 300 mothers a year, estimated there had been a 30 per cent rise in home births over the pandemic.
“We definitely have seen a massive upswing in women wanting to birth at home,” Ms Wilkes said, noting some mothers were concerned about catching the virus but were overwhelmingly put off by strict hospital COVID rules.
“It’s things like the partner only being allowed to be present for a certain period of time … wearing masks … a lot of hospitals are not allowing women to use water immersion,” she said.
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