KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (WATE) — Yes, pregnant or postpartum and breastfeeding women can safely receive the COVID-19 vaccine, experts say. The emerging data and studies on the topic haven’t been around long according to medical personnel and the University of Tennessee Medical Center OB/Gyn who hosted a virtual information session on the topic Thursday.

Dr. Kimberly Fortner, the vice chair of the UT OB/Gyn Department and vice president of Women and Infants Services, answered questions from mothers using sets of data and studies regarding the COVID-19 vaccine and women’s health; specifically, women who are pregnant or recently had a baby, and the virus and vaccine’s effects. The virtual information session was hosted by UT Medical Center on its Facebook page.

Fortner used automobile terminology to make relatable analogies to compare the use of vaccines and masks against the virus. The main question and concerns Fortner addressed – how the COVID-19 vaccine has impacted pregnancy.

“The good news is, vaccination is highly effective against severe disease, but it’s not preventing all illness,” Fortner said. “If the vaccine is compared to the seat belt that I clip when I get into the car, my mask is actually the airbag. … It’s going to take both mechanisms for a while. That’s not the news you want to hear, but facts are facts. We’re all sort of on the journey together.”

Fortner also shared that the American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology and the Society of Maternal-Fetal Medicine on July 30 came out with a formal statement recommending the vaccine in pregnancy.

“That’s a huge stance, that’s a big change,” Fortner said. “We’ve gone from saying, ‘Well, we acknowledge that studies were not done in pregnant women.’ We’ve done a prior video we did in this setting where we talked through some of that initial data. And the recommendation at the time was that you should have a conversation with your provider.

“Now, based on the safety data so far, everyone is very satisfied, and we continue to have a positive affirmation that there’s no adverse consequences in getting the vaccine in pregnancy.”

Data is king in research studies, and so far, pregnant women who have been vaccinated against the coronavirus haven’t reported seeing any specific safety concerns during their pregnancies or deliveries, Fortner explained. According to the “New England Journal of Medicine,” as of July 6, a total of 130,435 pregnant women have gotten the COVID-19 vaccine among all trimesters.

But, the available data is limited.

“I think that’s something that comes up. … We know the available data from research so far. We’re not trying to say we have 10 years’ worth of data,” Fortner said. “But we do see that there’s increased risk of getting the COVID infection.”

What if you’re wanting to get pregnant? Fortner said it’s hard to track all that data; however, colleagues in reproductive endocrinology have studied both animal and volunteer humans – and finding that there have been, so far, no negative effects on ovaries of animals or ovaries and ovulation of humans. There were also no negative effects on the implantation of the embryo during in-vitro fertilization, and no change in sperm of male humans.

Fortner also said there was no known increased negative risk of miscarriage from the COVID vaccine; however, they’re still learning about miscarriage. There also isn’t much data that points to the COVID vaccine causing infertility, Fortner said.

She went on to say people should make sure that the data is backed up by a good, reliable resource, like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, UT Medical Center, and other authority agencies like the American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology and the Society of Maternal-Fetal Medicine. The data is there.

What if you’re hesitating to get the vaccine if you’re trying to get pregnant or are pregnant? Fortner said she’s going to encourage people to look at the available safety data. She had also explained that the emerging data is indicating women who are unvaccinated-pregnant experience more severe illness from COVID-19 than women who are vaccinated-pregnant.

“I would send you a very strong message about – encourage, encourage, encourage – vaccine versus illness. Even vaccinated ill is going to do far better than unvaccinated ill,” Fortner said.

One person asked about the confusion surrounding masks and pregnancy.

“It’s a really difficult and charged discussion, isn’t it?” Fortner said. “As our community prevalence increases of circulating disease – again, herd immunity – and as our incidence rises, with our current vaccine rates, it’s very challenging. And with the delta variant and its infectivity, we often will need our mask in addition.”

As for later gestation, postpartum, and breastfeeding women, vaccine antibodies generally take some time to pass along to the baby; Fortner referenced antibodies as the “gift” from the mother’s body to her baby. The antibodies given during placental circulation last for the first three months of a newborn’s life. That’s when their immune system is weakest.

Fortner recommended the mother think about timing. Breastfeeding mothers who are vaccinated can safely breastfeed their babies, but it takes time to pass along antibodies. But here again, the data is limited in the study of human milk and the COVID-19 vaccine. Fortner said it might take a higher concentration of antibodies in the breastmilk, they think, to pass the similar antibody “serum” concentration along to the baby.

“But guess what? It’s worked for thousands – depending on where your beliefs are – (or) millions of years. We know that there’s good data behind breastfeeding, passing along antibodies and protection to our babies,” Fortner said.

Fortner recommended that people wanting more information on the topic of COVID-19 vaccines and pregnancy can look at this collaborative site: Tennessee Initiative for Perinatal Quality Care (TIPQC) – Vaccine Webinar Series.