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APRIL 15, 2020 — The SARS-CoV-2 novel coronavirus has dramatically altered specialty practice across the board, including the practice of infertility treatment. Reproductive medicine societies recommend suspending new infertility treatment cycles during this time. Women and couples who have already invested time and money in their treatment may be understandably frustrated and worried about the impact of this enforced—and indefinite—delay on their chances of conceiving. This puts the physician, who can’t even guarantee when treatment can resume, in the difficult position of trying to balance the patient’s needs with expert recommendations and government mandates.
Infertility Care During COVID-19
European and American reproductive medicine societies have both offered guidelines regarding infertility care during the pandemic. Both recommend shifting to the use of telehealth rather than in-person visits when possible for initial consultations and follow-up discussions.
With respect to infertility treatments during the COVID-19 pandemic, the American Society for Reproductive Medicine (ASRM) advises the following:
Suspend initiation of new treatment cycles, including ovulation induction; intrauterine insemination; and in vitro fertilization, including retrievals and frozen embryo transfers, and suspend nonurgent gamete cryopreservation.
Strongly consider cancellation of all embryo transfers, whether fresh or frozen.
Continue to care for patients who are currently “in cycle” or who require urgent stimulation and cryopreservation.
Suspend elective surgeries and nonurgent diagnostic procedures.
In most countries, including the United States, all healthcare providers have been asked to put elective and nonurgent medical interventions on hold to ensure that personal protective equipment and other resources are available for the management of patients with COVID-19.
Infertility is a disease and, as such, not all infertility care should be considered elective. Still, for most patients, the overall chances of conceiving will not be compromised by a short delay (1-3 months) in treatment. A longer wait could have more impact on older patients or those who already have reduced ovarian reserve, but these are not indications for urgent fertility treatment.
There are clearly some cases in which infertility treatment cannot be delayed: for example, fertility preservation (oocyte or embryo vitrification) for patients who need to undergo immediate gonadotoxic oncology treatment. These patients need to be able to freeze oocytes/embryos so that later on, they have the option of having a family.
Another situation that could require new infertility treatment is a woman who needs urgent surgery for a condition such as severe symptomatic endometriosis causing ureteral or bowel stenosis/obstruction. Because the surgery itself can compromise fertility, the patient may elect to undergo oocyte embryo cryopreservation or ovarian tissue cryopreservation before the surgical procedure.
Pregnancy and COVID-19
As a precautionary measure during the COVID-19 pandemic, it is recommended that planned pregnancy be avoided. The available data on the risks presented by planning a pregnancy during the COVID pandemic are reassuring but limited.
Pregnancy itself has not been shown to alter the course of COVID-19, and most affected pregnant women will experience only mild or moderate flulike symptoms. Patients with cardiovascular or metabolic comorbidities or those requiring immunosuppressants are expected to be at increased risk for more severe forms of the infection. Currently, no strong evidence suggests a higher risk for miscarriage, stillbirth, or adverse neonatal outcomes with maternal COVID-19 infection.
A report based on 38 cases found no evidence for vertical transmission from mother to fetus, and all neonatal specimens (placental tissue) tested negative for the virus. Moreover, no maternal deaths were reported among these 38 infected women. Another study of 11 infected pregnant women likewise found no increased risk for perinatal morbidity or mortality.
On the other hand, a recent article on the perinatal outcomes of 33 neonates born to mothers with confirmed COVID-19 reported three cases of neonatal COVID-19 as a result of possible vertical transmission. In two cases, symptoms were mild and initial positive coronavirus test results turned negative within a few days. The third case—a pregnancy delivered by emergency cesarean section at 31 weeks for fetal distress—was complicated by bacterial sepsis, thrombocytopenia, and coagulopathy, but once again, the initially positive coronavirus test was negative by day 7.
No neonatal deaths were reported in these 33 cases. The authors could not rule out the possibility of vertical transmission in the three COVID-positive newborns because strict infection control measures were implemented during the care of the patients.
Counseling Patients About Suspending Infertility Treatments
Counseling women is the key to acceptance of the need to suspend or postpone infertility treatments during the pandemic. In addition to the economic hardships that some patients may face as a consequence of the pandemic, an obvious source of frustration stems from not knowing how long delays in treatment might be necessary. A discussion with patients or couples may reassure them that delaying conception is the safest route. For some women, other treatment options might be offered, such as the use of a donor gamete.
Some patients, even when counseled appropriately, may elect to accept the unknown risks. These patients should be counseled about the benefits of cryopreservation with delayed transfer. This could be a compromise, because their overall chances of pregnancy will not be affected but they will have to wait to become pregnant.
Counseling patients about the true impact of delaying treatment in their individual circumstances, providing them with emotional and (if needed) psychological support is important while they wait for their treatment to start. For now, the vast majority of the patients understand the need for delay, appreciate the opportunity to consult the physician over the phone, and are demonstrating patience as they wait for their treatment to start or resume.
Resuming Infertility Care
Recommendations could change as the pandemic continues and more information becomes available about the impact of coronavirus infection during pregnancy and the overall capacity of the healthcare system improves. ASRM acknowledges that “reproductive care professionals, in consultation with their patients, will have to consider reassessing the criteria of what represents urgent and non-urgent care.” If the data remain reassuring and social distancing measures are able to slow down the spread of the disease, the infertility care of those couples who would be most affected by a delay in their treatment could gradually be resumed. On April 14, ASRM updated its recommendations about resuming infertility treatment: “ While it is not yet prudent to resume non-emergency infertility procedures, the Task Force recognizes it is also time to begin to consider strategies and best practices for resuming time-sensitive fertility treatments in the face of COVID-19.”
It is likely that the return to “normal” daily practice will be done in a stepwise fashion. I expect the practices first to open for diagnostic infertility testing, then for the less invasive procedures (frozen embryo transfer, intrauterine insemination) and finally for the more invasive lengthy procedures (stimulation with retrieval and embryo transfer). During the reopening of practice, strict infection control measures will need to be observed.