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Jan. 24, 2022 — Kim Tranell had egg retrieval, a key procedure in her fourth and final cycle of in vitro fertilization, on March 16, 2020 — the day before the American Society for Reproductive Medicine suggested halting fertility treatments due to COVID-19.
In the time between that procedure and the embryo transfer — the final step of the process — the rest of the cycle was postponed.
Tranell and her husband had been trying for a baby since 2017. One miscarriage, countless doctor appointments, and $45,000 later, they were forced to put their plans on hold even further.
“It was devastating,” says Tranell, 39, of Brooklyn, NY. “It was really, really hard to feel like something we’d been waiting so long for and trying so hard for was now indefinitely on hold.”
The emotional blow was made worse by the stress of the pandemic, she says.
“There were all these jokes about how there would be a pandemic baby boom, and for us it was the opposite,” she says. “Our hopes were taken away at the same time everything else in our lives had slowed down or stopped.”
Tranell’s experience represents one of the many casualties of COVID-19. As people lost their lives, loved ones, and jobs, fertility patients like Tranell faced other losses: hope and precious time in an already taxing, drawn-out process.
One cycle of vitro fertilization, or IVF, can take 2 to 3 months and involves several appointments, blood draws, tests, and medications often given with at-home shots.
According to the CDC, 330,000 assisted reproductive technology cycles — a majority of which are IVF — were completed in 2019.
But the pandemic interrupted these efforts for many couples in 2020 and 2021, says Steven Brenner, MD, an attending doctor at New York-based fertility center RMA Long Island IVF.
“This has been a hugely anxiety-provoking situation for patients, understandably,” he says. “These individuals are dealing with infertility they never thought they’d experience, and now yet another hurdle is put in front of them. They’re feeling already defeated, and now another obstacle totally out of their control.”
Some of the concerns that led to delays were resolved with the vaccine rollout, Brenner says. Many patients feared contracting COVID-19 while pregnant, and the vaccines provided protection and peace of mind.
But that wasn’t the only concern. Patients like Tranell were scared they’d be faced with overflowing emergency departments in the event of a miscarriage.
According to a survey from the American Society for Reproductive Medicine, 85% of people whose cycles were canceled said the experience was “moderately to extremely upsetting.” Nearly a quarter said it was like the loss of a child.
Even people who have not had to cancel their cycles have been affected by COVID-19 restrictions. One IVF patient named Amanda, who wishes to withhold her last name, went through the IVF process without her husband by her side. Many clinics have prohibited anyone other than the patient from attending.
“He wasn’t able to come inside and had to wait in the car,” she says. “It was a weird, detached feeling. It’s already a difficult process to begin with.”
Doctors have encouraged people to FaceTime with partners during procedures to keep them involved, says Lindsay Kroener, MD, a reproductive endocrinology and infertility specialist at UCLA Health.
But the absence of physical support during appointments has been hard on patients, and the uncertainty of the pandemic has added to the emotional and financial burden of fertility treatments, she says.
“It does add another layer of anxiety for patients, and many have been delayed many months,” Kroener says. “For many people, a few months can make a big difference.”
Though most clinics have reopened fully and are taking proper precautions, the highly transmissible Omicron variant has led to new concern among patients.
“The latest surge has really woken people up to the vast effects of this pandemic,” Brenner says. “We were kind of thinking we were through it, getting back to normal. The impact that had been felt was lessening. This has reawakened all of that.”