ELGIN, S.C. - A 31-year-old South Carolina mother died from complications of COVID-19 just weeks after giving birth to her fourth child.
Sara Caitlin Vilchez was diagnosed with COVID-19 38 weeks into her pregnancy on Aug. 14, according to her older sister, Amanda Haynes.
"She just felt crummy, kind of like the flu but on steroids," Haynes said.
Vilchez had elected to wait until after giving birth to her daughter to get the COVID-19 vaccine after experiencing several miscarriages in the past, her sister said.
A recent study published in "JAMA" led by the HealthPartners Institute found that the COVID-19 mRNA vaccines are not linked to an increased risk of miscarriage for pregnant women. The research adds to existing data that suggest COVID-19 vaccines are safe for people who are pregnant, HealthPartners said in a news release.
Sara Caitlin Vilchez at her baby shower.
The proportion of miscarriages to ongoing pregnancies among those who were vaccinated was nearly identical to the proportion of miscarriages to ongoing pregnancies among those who were unvaccinated, which suggests that vaccines had no impact the miscarriages, according to a HealthPartners Institute news release.
In April, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, along with the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists and the American Academy of Pediatrics, issued guidance saying COVID-19 vaccines should not be withheld from pregnant women. They also said all pregnant women should maintain masking and social distancing, even if they've been vaccinated.
"No safety concerns were observed for people vaccinated in the third trimester or safety concerns for their babies. As such, CDC recommends that pregnant people receive the COVID-19 vaccine," Dr. Rochelle Walensky, the CDC director, said during a press conference April.
Sara with her three daughters. (Amanda Haynes)
The CDC has said in the past that pregnant woman are more likely to suffer from severe COVID-19 illness compared to those who aren’t pregnant. Pregnant people with the virus might also be at increased risk for other poor outcomes, such as preterm birth, the agency’s website added.
The updated guidance came as COVID-19 infections surged due to the highly transmissible delta variant, including among pregnant women, the CDC said, citing a low vaccine uptake among expectant women and greater risk for severe disease and pregnancy complications following COVID-19 infection.
"The vaccines are safe and effective, and it has never been more urgent to increase vaccinations as we face the highly transmissible delta variant and see severe outcomes from COVID-19 among unvaccinated pregnant people," CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky said in a statement.
On Aug. 15, Vilchez went into labor and gave birth to a healthy baby girl.
"The baby was COVID negative and Sara was able to bond with her and tried breastfeeding her before bringing her home," Haynes said.
Baby and mom were able to come home on Aug. 18, but the happy day soon turned into a nightmare as Vilchez said she was having trouble breathing.
"Within a couple of hours she was taken back to the hospital," Haynes said. "And a couple of hours after she was admitted, they called to ask permission to intubate her. It was pretty scary that night."
Sara Caitlin Vilchez. (Amanda Haynes)
Doctors told Haynes that Vilchez’s health was declining pretty quickly and that many who deteriorated that fast did not usually come back.
"Surprisingly enough, she rallied, she made it," Haynes said. "She had a fever and they didn’t know where it was coming from. She was getting better."
Haynes said that she and her family were becoming hopeful as Vilchez improved.
"I called three to four times a day to get updates trying to stay on top of everything because you worry about your loved ones being at a hospital and nobody was there to be her mouthpiece or her advocate, the fact that they go through this alone I tried my best to make sure she knew she was loved and she had people to advocate for her," Haynes said.
Vilchez was laughing with nurses and even attended physical therapy twice. Haynes said doctors were discussing potentially getting Vilchez off the ventilator as she was showing signs of improvement.
But on Sept. 3, Vilchez suddenly took a turn for the worse. Doctors called Haynes to let her know that her sister had declined once again and that she was no longer responding.
Within a few hours, Vilchez passed away.
Vilchez left behind four children: Arianna, 14, Ashleigh, 11, Maria "Nicole," 8, and Maryana, 3 weeks.
"I keep getting compliments about how much my sister gave and how much she was loved and cared for. If you needed $10 and she only had $5, she would find out how to get you the other $5," Haynes said, laughing.
"Her life revolved around her kids, she would do anything she could to protect her children. She was better than me," Haynes said with a chuckle. "She wasn’t perfect but she was a good mom."
Haynes and her family have set up a GoFundMe account for Vilchez’s four daughters as she did not have a will or a life insurance policy set up before her untimely death.
"We want people to get vaccinated and to be careful. If she was here, she would absolutely have gotten it after she gave birth," Haynes stressed.
Sara and newborn baby. (Amanda Haynes)
Vilchez’s eldest daughter, Arianna, who will be celebrating her quinceanera this year, elected to get the COVID-19 vaccine when it became available for children 12 and older.
"When it became available for 12 and older, she talked to her 14-year-old and together they made a decision to get her vaccinated," Haynes said.
Most pregnant women in the U.S. have yet to receive a COVID-19 vaccine, according to the latest data compiled by the CDC.
As of Aug. 21, about 3 in 4 pregnant women aged 18-49 were unvaccinated, or in other words, 23.9% overall received at least one dose, per data from the agency’s Vaccine Safety Datalink. Vaccination coverage was reported lowest among Hispanic/Latina (19.2%) and Black pregnant women (11.7%), with higher coverage reported among Asian (35.2%) and White pregnant women (26.6%).
As of Aug. 30, the agency reported 112,806 total COVID-19 cases among pregnant women and 135 deaths, and federal data indicate COVID-19 cases were increasing among pregnant women into late July.
A 32-year-old Alabama nurse and her unborn child died of coronavirus after she reportedly refused to get vaccinated. Haley Mulkey Richardson worked in the labor and delivery unit at a Pensacola hospital in Alabama, and contracted COVID-19 about three weeks before her death on Aug. 20, according to Al.com.
Richardson was transferred to an ICU after her symptoms deteriorated, according to the report. Her unborn daughter, named Ryleigh Beth, died two days before her.
Sara and her daughter. (Amanda Haynes)
Julie Mulkey, Richardson’s mother, said her daughter would not get vaccinated because she was planning to have another child and she was concerned about the possibility of anaphylactic reactions.
"Haley had had anaphylaxis reactions in the past," Mulkey told the site. "So for that reason, she felt that it was not safe for her."
Mulkey is now asking other pregnant women to get vaccinated.
In Texas, a career educator died of COVID-19 only two weeks after giving birth to her daughter.The news was a blow to those who knew 32-year-old Paige Ruiz, the former assistant principal.
Ruiz had a 2-year-old daughter and got sick before her due date. She stayed in the intensive care unit after delivering her daughter by C-section and never got to hold the baby before she died.
"It was difficult to see her knowing she didn’t get to hold her baby but we did video chats and she got to see her that way. And we did it that way and we let Paige be a mom to Celeste in a different way and that’s how we coped," Robin Zinsou, her mother said tearfully.
Ruiz did not get the vaccine because she was pregnant. She planned to get it after the birth.
Her mom said a few days before her death she sent a text wishing she had taken the vaccine. She also texted all of her friends and family members encouraging them to get the shot.
FOX News, FOX 5 NY and FOX 4 News contributed to this report.