When Alice Bennight was walking into the Peterborough Regional Health Centre (PRHC) on June 26 to be induced for delivery, she was a bit nervous.
Not particularly because she was a week overdue, but moreso because she was about to give birth during a global pandemic.
“Yeah, I was a little nervous,” said Bennight. “But, I mean, I knew there weren’t any active cases at the hospital, which was very reassuring, and that they were taking it so seriously was also reassuring, so I know that I’m not likely to come into contact with it while I’m there.”
Bennight had to follow the exact protocols developed by PRHC. At the time, she was only allowed to come in with one support person — her husband, Steven.
They were both screened at the door for COVID-19 symptoms, and then escorted to the labour and delivery unit.
At 7:05 p.m., after four hours of active labour, 9 pounds and 5 ounces of pure cuteness was born.
Meet Bobby Bennight.
“He’s mostly a happy little guy, he does get fussy, but yeah, he’s doing really well,” said Bennight.
The hospital has been working on developing specific protocols for births, using staggered evidence and guidelines that they receive from the province, from several colleges of obstetricians, and from maternal councils.
As new evidence emerges, staff tweak the protocols accordingly.
It’s definitely uncharted territory, though. Dr. Dallaire said the hospital has never dealt with anything like the COVID-19 pandemic during her time there.
One thing that’s set in stone? Babies wait for no one, pandemic or not.
“We’re not able to slow down,” said Dr. Christine Dallaire, obstetrician and gynecologist and the Medical Director of the Women and Children’s program at PRHC.
“We can’t — like other areas in the hospital — kind of prolong or postpone appointments. So we’ve had to just keep going full speed throughout this whole pandemic.”
From 2019 to 2020, 1,642 babies were born at the health centre.
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While other care at PRHC has turned virtual, Dr. Dallaire said most care to pregnant individuals hasn’t. The hospital has worked to physically bring patients to the building, both for pre-birth and post-birth appointments.
It is at these appointments that Dr. Dallaire says the patient is briefed on what to expect.
“As soon as new information started coming in March, prospective parents and new-parents … had a lot of questions about what was going to happen next,” said Dr. Dallaire.
“We have carefully looked at the number of visits and the schedule of the prenatal visits, and really tried to optimize things to make sure people don’t have to make multiple visits — that we can do things in one visit.”
Danielle Newall found those visits reassuring.
“I feel like I was actually the opposite (of nervous),” said Newall. “There were so many calls about guidelines, and checking in, and taking different screening tests, that I felt more prepared than my last (birth).”
On June 4, at 2:20 p.m., Newall and her husband Matthew welcomed Bauer O’Halloran, at 8 pounds and 11 ounces.
Newall had been on bedrest since January, so she was secluded from the outside world before everything shut down. She left her house for the first time at 37 weeks to get the baby flipped at the hospital.
“I was most nervous that my husband wasn’t going to be able to come in,” said Newall.
“That was the biggest thing on my mind. I wanted him to be there. It’s his experience, too.”
In the days leading up to Newall’s birth, Mathew was cleared to accompany her.
“It just felt really organized. Everybody was on point with making sure you knew the guidelines, and checking in with you. They were really great last time with my daughter Emma, but they were over-the-top, super nice, genuine, and caring this time,” said Newall.
When do pregnant individuals have to wear a mask?
The answer depends on where the individual is giving birth. According to Dr. Dallaire, different hospitals develop different safety protocols based on existing evidence and guidelines, as well as the equipment and resources available at the facility.
At PRHC, a pregnant individual and their support person(s) must wear a mask upon entry, till they get to the delivery room. During vaginal labor, a mask is optional. During a scheduled cesarean section however, a mask can be worn.
Masks are mandatory on the way out.
Who is allowed to witness the birth?
Again, it depends on the hospital. Currently, PRHC is allowing two labour support people to accompany the pregnant individual, and two post-birth visitors in the nursery.
At the start of the pandemic, Dr. Dallaire says the hospital was only allowing one support person.
If the primary support person(s) have a fever or cough, they will not be allowed to visit the hospital.
Does a COVID-19 test have to be done prior to delivery?
Not necessarily, because things can change between the time the test was taken and the time of delivery, according to Dr. Dallaire.
However, if a pregnant individual is suspected or confirmed to have COVID-19 by the time of delivery, Dr. Dallaire says staff will swab the baby and run a special COVID-19 test, limited just to newborns, with results getting back within the hour.
Do pregnant individuals have other birth options, outside of a hospital?
Yes. In fact, the Association of Ontario Midwives (AOM) says midwives have been working in full force to provide at-home deliveries and care during all this.
“For midwives, it’s been stressful and demanding,” said Jasmin Tecson, President of AOM. “But there was never any question that midwives would be able to continue to provide the excellent care that they provide to birthing people and babies in Ontario.
“What was challenging was finding ways to maintain that high quality, safe care under pandemic conditions.”
Tecson said the provincial safety guidelines and recommendations provided to midwives are not too different from the ones provided to hospitals. However, just like the protocols developed from those guidelines will differ from hospital to hospital, they, too, might differ from one midwifery practice to the next.
According to guidelines provided by AOM, only essential support people who don’t exhibit symptoms of COVID-19 and no have no recent travel history and have not been in close contact with a COVID-19 case can be considered to attend the delivery.
Household members who don’t tick those boxes might have to stay in a separate room. No specific number of support people was outlined by the guidelines.
Midwives may also refer to this flowchart provided by AOM, to determine what level of PPE they should wear during at home visits.
Midwives can also order a COVID-19 test for their client at any point in time during prenatal or postpartum period. However, newborns must be tested within 24 hours of delivery, if the birthing parent had a suspected or confirmed COVID-19 diagnosis during the time of delivery, regardless of their symptoms. Water birth is not recommended for those individuals.
Meanwhile at the Bennight household, Bobby is enjoying the time he gets to spend with his older sisters, Annabelle and Valerie.
“I love my little brother,” said Annabelle, and her sister placed a kiss on Bobby’s cheek.
Bauer O’Halloran is also doing great, according to Newall — though she says he isn’t getting much sleep.
Perhaps being the only O’Halloran to be born during a global pandemic is getting to his head.