COVID Closures Create Backlog at San Diego Fertility Clinics

NBC 7 Responds looked at why the demand for fertility treatments has grown so quickly in recent months

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The coronavirus pandemic shut down many "nonessential medical procedures." For many people who were planning a family or trying to have children, that delay really hurt.

"Unfortunately, a lot of people are on this journey and they have disappointments all along the way," said Rachelle Nelson, who underwent invitro fertilization (IVF) treatments last year and is expecting a baby girl this week. "The last thing they want or need is the delay because of COVID."

In April and May, most treatments had to stop. Dr. Sanjay Agarwal at UCSD Health said the medical center is still operating at a reduced capacity.

"Most fertility centers shut down, or severely cut down, the care of their patients in the peak of COVID," Agarwal said. "Most fertility centers are trying to maintain safe distancing, decreasing the volume of patients at any given time."

Nelson said the process is long and expensive, and the shutdown was very stressful for many couples.

"It's a big emotional and financial risk to take," Nelson said. "After six weeks of hormone injections, we were afraid that it would be canceled."

IVF can cost between $12,000 and $17,000 before medication, and insurance may not cover the treatment. Nelson said she started hormone injections at the end of 2019 and worried the pandemic would reset the process.

"We thought we might have to cancel and start all over, and it's a two-month process just to do each one of these steps," Nelson said. "You have to take a lot of hormone injections and do a lot of things to your body to hope that. maybe. you might get pregnant and might have a baby, but you might not."

Agarwal said demand for fertility treatments is 30-40% higher than it was pre-pandemic.

"A part of this is probably pent-up demand from when we were curtailed, but I think it's more than that," Agarwal said. "Maybe [people] had time to contemplate and think about their future families and had the opportunity to discuss, and now they are acting."

The high cost of IVF has pushed people to look for sperm donors online on web forums and social media. Agarwal said people should be cautious about not using a well-known sperm bank.

"You don't know about [the donor's] history, you don't know about the genetics," Agarwal said. "There are many aspects that you have much less information about, aspects that should actually be very important to you."

Agarwal said that donors at sperm banks are tested for infections, then tested again six months later to make sure they did not become positive with a disease after the initial screening. The sperm is also quarantined for six months to ensure its safety.

Agarwal also said people have been going to Mexico for insemination or IVF treatments.

"I have patients who go there because it's less expensive," Agarwal said. "If they can't attain it here, then good for them. The key is they get the care and outcomes they want. If they go 30 miles south or wherever, fantastic."

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