AUSTIN (KXAN) — Maternal death increased from 2019 to 2020 according to a new analysis conducted by Texas State University researchers and others.

There were 4,535 maternal deaths in the US from 2019 to 2020. The number of pregnant women, and recently pregnant women, who died per 100,000 women in the US increased by 29%, according to the analysis. This rate increased for both pregnancy-related causes – by 22 % – and non-pregnancy-related causes – by 36% – the researchers found. 

“Prior to the pandemic, the majority of the deaths related to maternal mortality were higher for pregnancy-related causes,” said Krista Howard, a lead author of this study and a professor at Texas State University in the psychology department. 

“And once 2020 hit, that shifted, and we have a higher majority of deaths due to non-pregnancy related causes. So drug overdoses, motor vehicle accidents and homicides –  those all increased dramatically during the pandemic,” she continued. 

Howard said an explanation for this increase during the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic was limited access to services, especially postpartum. Rates of anxiety and depression during this time surged.  

“A lot of those individuals may have been missed,” Howard said. “This particular group is already vulnerable. Then to have the pandemic on top of that just made a really big mess for all of them.” 

A particularly alarming finding, Howard pointed out, was the 42% increase in drug overdoses in pregnant women and recently pregnant women. 

“When we see increases in drug overdoses, that is typically a maladaptive coping strategy,” she said. “It’s kind of shocking that [drug overdoses] are hitting this particular population of pregnant and recently pregnant women. You wouldn’t think of this particular population being as vulnerable to drug overdoses.” 

The study also illuminated racial disparities. Death rates were three to five times higher among American Indians and Native Alaskans for every cause of death, including suicide, compared to non-Hispanic White women. Also, non-Hispanic Black women’s maternal mortality rates were higher across causes of death, and they had the highest rates for homicide than any other racial group.

“Knowing what the causes of death [will] help to guide our resources,” Howard said. “[We need] to know where to reach out, create access to health care, create support systems for women who are experiencing relationship violence and things like that. Those all need to be improved,” she said. 

The researchers acquired death files from the National Center of Health Statistics and birth data from the US Center for Disease Control in this analysis. Howard said maternal mortality data from 2021 has not been released yet.