Expectant mothers ditching traditional birth plans, fearing hospitals will be overrun

The coronavirus has thrown uncertainty into giving birth. 

Nearly 1 million women in the U.S. are expecting babies in the next three months. 

Now, many are scrambling to ditch their traditional birth plans, fearing hospitals will be overrun with illness and banish visitors, even spouses or partners. 

"When you're expecting a child your nerves are already a little shot," said biology professor Briana McCarthy, expecting her first child May 19. "At first, it seemed really shocking to cancel our baby shower."

Pregnancy is a challenge in the best of times, but even more so for McCarthy and partner Eric Armour. 

Armour is an occupational therapist who works in a rehabilitation hospital.

On returning to their Concord home each day, he rigorously sanitizes everything he carries, strips off his clothes in the garage and heads straight to the shower. 

The couple sleeps separately and uses different bathrooms to safeguard McCarthy and their soon-to-be-born daughter, due in six weeks.  

They are alarmed hearing about women forced to give birth alone, and having their newborns isolated from them, due to coronavirus precautions.

"I'm concerned about Eric not being there and also about making skin-to-skin contact with our baby which is so important for bonding with both parents," said McCarthy.   "We're concerned Eric might not meet her until she comes home."  

The couple recently moved from San Francisco to the East Bay, and were on track to deliver at Kaiser, which still allows one companion at birth now, but can't guarantee that won't change.   

"Not being able to be there and support Briana at this time would be very hard to deal with," said Armour.  

Midwives who attend births at freestanding facilities are being inundated with requests. 

"People are feeling a lot of stress and a lot of fear," said Cindy Haag, a midwife of thirty years, and co-founder of the Pacifica Family Maternity Center in Berkeley. 

Calls to the Center have tripled in two weeks. 

Women- even with due dates a week or two away- are frantic to switch their delivery from the hospital.    

"If people are low risk and seem like a good fit, then we try to help out in this pandemic," said Haag.

But the Center can't fit everyone in, so there is a waiting list for the next few months, and many callers are disappointed. 

"It's honestly heartbreaking, this whole time has been so hard, " said Haag. 

"We have to say no or put them on the list, and they don't even know where they're going to end up birthing, so it's really sad."  

Some women are pursuing a home birth, if they can find an available midwife or doula. 

But home has its own infection risk, so precautions are needed there too.     

"At any birth we are wearing PPE, we're screening people, taking temperatures, and being cautious about any contamination," said Haag. 

McCarthy has ruled out home birth. 

"We're just a little too far from the hospital and I'm a little too high risk." 

But she is wait-listed for the birth center. 

"If we weren't so new to the East Bay, we would have looked into that earlier," she admits. 

They expect to end up at Kaiser, and hope the hospital environment doesn't deteriorate in the weeks ahead. 

"I was really looking forward to having my parents, my brother and his kids involved," said Armour, noting how odd it is to be isolated during such a milestone event. 

Not only are baby showers cancelled, but families must meet newborns on video, instead of in-person. 

But the couple is philosophical that their birth story, along with so many others, will be different than they envisioned.  

"What matters is bringing a healthy baby into the world," said McCarthy. 

"It will still be exciting, still be a great time in our lives, and that much more memorable that it's happening during this." 

Debora Villalon is a reporter forKTVU.  Email Debora at debora.villalon@foxtv.com and follow her on Twitter@DeboraKTVU