Geek of the Week

What’s impact of COVID-19 on being pregnant? UW’s Kristina Adams Waldorf needs to ship solutions

Dr. Kristina Adams Waldorf, a professor of obstetrics and gynecology at the University of Washington School of Medicine, wearing a variety of personal protective equipment. (Photo courtesy of Kristina Adams Waldorf)

As an obstetrician, Dr. Kristina Adams Waldorf said there’s nothing that she likes more than to be involved in a totally healthy pregnancy and a beautiful birth, where mom and baby are healthy and a new family is created.

“That’s the dream,” said the professor in the departments of Obstetrics & Gynecology and Global Health at the University of Washington School of Medicine.

Coronavirus Live Updates: The latest COVID-19 developments in Seattle and the world of tech

A lot of dreams are being tested in more ways than one by the COVID-19 pandemic. As someone who has studied both bacterial and viral infections in pregnancy, their effect on the mother’s and newborn’s immune response, as well as therapies to protect pregnancy, Adams Waldorf is determined to learn about the effects of COVID-19.

“The bottom line is we still don’t know anything,” our latest Geek of the Week said, launching into a series of questions for which she would love to find the answers. “What does COVID-19 in pregnancy look like in the United States? How sick do women get? How long does it take for them to present with symptoms? Do they have the typical symptoms that non-pregnant adults have? What happens to the babies? Are they as healthy as they should be? How should we be treating women?”

Adams Waldorf said the coronavirus outbreak is a huge problem for hospitals when it comes to helping women give birth safely. During a public health crisis, the standard of care is comprised by the increased risk of infection, the need to keep staff healthy and the burden of supply shortages.

Adams Waldorf dealt with that last issue firsthand, thanks to a friend who was connected to Tesla and CEO Elon Musk, who was looking to donate medical equipment to workers on the front lines. With a truck ready to roll from California to Seattle, the doctor was contacted.

“‘We need an address right now to ship 50,000 N95 masks,’” Adams Waldorf was told in a frantic communication with Tesla. “I called UW and I said, ‘I think I’ve got $300,000 worth of medical supplies coming to my home. Can you help me out?’”

The supplies, also containing PAPR helmets, were in her garage “for about 2 minutes” before being picked up UW supply trucks. The Seattle Times covered the special delivery on March 22.

Through testing, telehealth, research and more, the UW is responding to the COVID-19 crisis in many ways. Adams Waldorf said they’re screening all pregnant women for COVID-19 before they show up for labor and delivery, ideally within 72 hours of their arrival. And if needed upon arrival, they’re tested with a rapid test.

“We’re doing the best we can in the context of this pandemic, but the rules are changing every day,” she said. And based on studies around the safety of home births, she said it’s still safer to deliver in a hospital during the pandemic than it is to deliver at home.

Dr. Kristina Adams Waldorf in her lab at the University of Washington. (UW Photo)

Adams Waldorf was born in Sweden and moved around a lot before settling in Seattle and at the UW in 1998. With a laboratory in her name at the school, her research prior to COVID-19 involved understanding how Group B Streptococcus causes preterm birth and stillbirth and testing new vaccines, and understanding how Zika virus causes fetal brain injury and testing new drugs and vaccines to prevent injury.

She figures she’ll be dealing with the current crisis and what’s ahead “for a good long while — many years.”

“I think that we’ll know a lot more about the public health within the next year, of what COVID-19 can do to pregnant women from a public health standpoint,” she said. “But how the virus gets into the fetus, if it does, and whether we can use therapeutics to prevent pregnant women from [getting sick]. That’s some of the things I’m interested in.”

Learn more about this week’s Geek of the Week, Kristina Adams Waldorf:

What do you do, and why do you do it? I study EVERYTHING and ANYTHING related to infectious diseases in pregnancy — how they impact the mother’s and newborn’s health, as well as the health of the placenta. I do it, because it is the most important and interesting calling that I can imagine. Don’t think that I can actually do anything else … with the exception of being a ski instructor (high school job) so that would be the fall back plan.

What’s the single most important thing people should know about your field? Fetal brain development is more fragile than most people realize. Severe infections in pregnancy increase the risk for both autism and depression in the child who was exposed to the infection while inside the mother’s uterus.

Where do you find your inspiration? I am surrounded by interesting and beautiful people in my life and my work. Their ideas, good will, kindness and generosity inspire me every day.

What’s the one piece of technology you couldn’t live without, and why? Bluetooth earbuds to listen to music while I work out.

What’s your workspace like, and why does it work for you? I can work anywhere, any environment, any noise level, any time (day or night). I tune everything out and then fall into an “abyss” of infectious disease thoughts. (This is a happy place, by the way.) I can also fall asleep anywhere in any environment. This is my superhero power.

Kristina Adams Waldorf and one of her daughters during a shark-diving expedition. (Photo courtesy of Kristina Adams Waldorf)

Your best tip or trick for managing everyday work and life. (Help us out, we need it.) Going to the gym and lifting weights. Whatever problems you had upon entering the gym will feel small and far away when you walk out.

Mac, Windows or Linux? Flexible. Mac, Windows, whatever.

Kirk, Picard, or Janeway? Definitely, Kirk. No question.

Transporter, Time Machine or Cloak of Invisibility? Transporter definitely, for the same reason that I chose Kirk.

If someone gave me $1 million to launch a startup, I would … create a telehealth company to bring high quality women’s health care to places lacking providers with this expertise.

I once waited in line for … I try not to wait in lines. I am Swedish and used to taking a “ticket” and then everyone queues up wherever they like in a large waiting area.

Your role models: My role models are my research colleagues. They are extraordinarily persistent, innovative and collegial (not to mention brilliant).

Greatest game in history: Tennis.

Best gadget ever: Not a gadget person. I won’t touch the TV remote, but want someone else to take me to the channel that I want.

First computer: MS-DOS, I think.

Current phone: iPhone 11.

Favorite app: Twitter.

Favorite cause: Planned Parenthood and National Nordic Museum.

Most important technology of 2020: Coronavirus vaccine — need this now, PLEASE!

Most important technology of 2022: More vaccines — the answer to almost everything.

Final words of advice for your fellow geeks: Do what you like, follow your passion — ignore the naysayers (and there will be a LOT of them). Gravitate toward your fan club, who understand what makes you tick.

Website: University of Washington OB/GYN

Twitter: @uwdrwaldorf

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