It is an understatement to say that the COVID-19 pandemic has been a stressful time. Almost everyone in the world has felt the effects of the disease, whether it be from unemployment, the death of a loved one, or even the grief of losing over a year of life to the disease.
Many have faced unique struggles over the course of the pandemic, including those with infertility disorders seeking IVF treatment. These patients found themselves devastated when fertility clinics, considered non-essential, were ordered to close. Treatments were put on hold, procedures delayed, and clocks continued to tick.
During these closures, doctors expected their clinics may end up losing patients. However, as clinics begin to reopen, medical staff are surprised to find that it is just the opposite. In fact, more people than ever are pursuing fertility treatments.
COVID-19 has changed many of the ways we used to go about our daily lives. Everyday we now don a mask, wash our hands, think about what surfaces we touch and who we see. Many of these changes are challenging to say the least, but there are some who have found a silver lining in the midst of all this mess.
Many patients, especially women, have reported that the pandemic has given them the space to think about their futures and where their fertility fits in. Some, who formerly had busy work lives with no time for elective treatments or lengthy procedures, are now able to work from home and ponder their family planning options. Even those who remained unsure regarding parenthood are now considering or following fertility treatment to ensure they have a choice later down the road.
The Center for Advanced Reproductive Services in Farmington, Connecticut reported a 30% rise in patients seeking IVF with 15% of those people deciding to move forward, a statistic that largely represents a nationwide phenomenon. And, as many appointments are now conducted digitally, it is easier than ever for potential patients to discuss options with specialists.
In addition to an increase in consultation and IVF treatment, centers have noted a meteoric rise in patients opting for “social” egg freezing.
The practice of freezing eggs, also known as oöcyte cryopreservation, is still a relatively new procedure. It involves a patient self administering hormone injections to stimulate the ovaries into releasing eggs more regularly and in a higher quantity. From there, doctors surgically remove the eggs and freeze them. These eggs can later be thawed, fertilized, and implanted when the potential parent is ready to move forward. Depending on the age of the patient, there is a 30% to 60% chance of successful implantation using frozen eggs.
There are plenty of reasons why someone may choose to freeze their eggs. They may have an infertility disorder, be facing chemotherapy, or be considering using a surrogate. But some clients freeze their eggs because they aren’t sure whether or not they want to be parents or simply aren’t yet ready. Choosing to freeze your eggs based on a lifestyle choice or uncertainty is sometimes referred to as “social” egg freezing.
The rise in egg freezing throughout the pandemic has been deemed a “craze” by newspapers and medical sources alike. TIME Magazine reported that 54 clinics across America have seen increased numbers of clients freezing their eggs each year. Shady Grove Fertility, a collection of 36 clinics on the East coast, saw a 50% rise in egg freezing since 2019 alone. Commenting on the surprise of medical personnel when it comes to the rise in treatment, Dr. Michael Alper, medical director and president of Boston IVF, said, “I thought that patients' economic and other concerns would deter them from undergoing treatment. In fact, it is the opposite.”
Based on this evidence, it seems as though patients have been inspired to freeze their eggs by the pandemic, rather than discouraged, and it’s understandable. When it feels as though you have lost valuable time, especially over a year and a half of life, putting into action plans that felt far off suddenly becomes imperative. As one interviewee from the TIME article above wrote about her choice to freeze her eggs, “...this is the one thing I can control in an unpredictable year.”
Still, despite clinics reopening and a rise in popularity for fertility treatments, there are people who continue to struggle with their infertility. Where some have used the isolation provided by the pandemic to decide whether a family should be in their future, many have found the quarantine to be a psychologically detrimental time.
Many fertility clinics offer counseling to aid those whose infertility causes them mental pain. The use of this service has also been on the rise. Fertility psychologist Philomena da Silva noted, “The journey towards parenthood as a fertility patient can be a long, emotionally heightened and precarious experience in itself, and these feelings seemed to increase during the isolation period.” These heightened emotions of stress, grief, anger, loneliness, etc. are a challenge to face on a good day, but in the face of COVID-19 they have become often unspeakable burdens. However, as always, it remains vital that those experiencing these feelings reach out for support from loved ones and medical professionals who can help them carry the load. For immediate or anonymous help, patients can use the RESOLVE hotline courtesy of the National Fertility Association.
Despite the reopening of fertility centers and the rise in treatments, it is important to note that the COVID-19 pandemic is ongoing. For this reason, it’s important to maintain all safety precautions such as wearing a mask, staying six feet apart, using hand sanitizer, washing your hands regularly, and now pursuing vaccination. Small actions like this protect the health and fertility of you, as well as those around you, for the long haul.