How the COVID-19 pandemic is impacting fertility treatments

TORONTO — As Canadians adjust their lives to heed public health authorities’ advice for curbing the spread of COVID-19, families beginning or in the process of undergoing fertility treatments are navigating an uncertain future.

While hospitals and medical centres stay open to treat patients during the pandemic, fertility clinics across the country have taken a different approach with some closing their doors and offering limited consultations remotely and others remaining open only for certain procedures.

“I think all of us, as fertility doctors, feel that this is a very difficult and trying time for our patients,” Dr. Prati Sharma, an associate physician at CReATe Fertility Centre in Toronto, told CTV’s Your Morning on Tuesday.

Sharma said her clinic is still providing treatment to their pregnant patients and those who are in the process of an in-vitro fertilization (IVF) cycle, but they’re not initiating any new IVF cycles or other procedures, including frozen embryo transfers (FET), diagnostic testing, and intrauterine insemination (IUI).

“Many of these patients have been gearing up to do their IVF cycle, [they] really put their all into this, so we can really understand fully and completely how it can be difficult to tell them that their treatments are on hold, but at the same time, we’re obviously in a new and unprecedented time with this pandemic,” she said.

Sharma said those who have had their appointments postponed or cancelled can still call in for telemedicine consultations with their doctor to discuss future plans.

While Sharma’s clinic is still treating existing patients, a number of other centres across the country have closed.

In an online notice to their patients, the Hannam Fertility Centre, which has locations in Toronto and Ottawa, announced it has paused its onsite services and will now be operating as a “virtual clinic.”

The centre also said it has collected materials for donation to local hospitals and women’s health centres in need of equipment for frontline workers.

Procrea Fertility, which operates clinics in Quebec, Ontario, and Manitoba, has closed two of its facilities in Quebec and is offering reduced services at their other locations.

In Vancouver, the Pacific Centre for Reproductive Medicine (PCRM) has also temporarily closed and said it will provide consultations by telephone.

According to Canadian Fertility and Andrology Society (CFAS), which provides guidance to the industry, fertility clinics should take measures to reduce in-person interactions.

To achieve this, the society asks its members to conduct consultations by telephone, completing current IVF cycles using the freeze-all method only which means eggs are frozen and not fertilized right away, suspending all diagnostic and elective procedures and surgeries, and postponing the start of any new cycles of IVF, IUI, and FET.

Sharma said her clinic is following the guidance of the CFAS, which is in line with European and U.S. societies, and only treating those who are pregnant or already in a cycle.

“It is unfortunate that we cannot start new cycles, but I think this in the spirit of social distancing, protecting our patients,” Sharma said.

Additionally, Sharma said they don’t still don’t have enough research on whether COVID-19 poses a significant risk to pregnant women.

“Although the current data shows that COVID is not like the Zika virus and is probably OK if you’re pregnant, we don’t have enough data,” she said.

What’s more, Sharma said the current medications used to treat COVID-19 patients is not safe for pregnant women.

“Pregnant women are considered high risk if they do contract the virus so our goal is the health and safety of our patients and for that reason, we’re completing all the cycles that exist, but we’re not starting any new treatment right now,” she said. 

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