Studies Gauge Toll of Pausing Fertility Treatment During Pandemic

Jake Remaly

November 20, 2020

Editor's note: Find the latest COVID-19 news and guidance in Medscape's Coronavirus Resource Center.

More than 60% of patients at a center for reproductive medicine in Utah who had fertility treatments canceled because of the COVID-19 pandemic opted to resume treatment once the suspension was lifted about 7 weeks later.

At another fertility center in New York, a survey found that 96% of respondents who had a cycle canceled because of the pandemic found it upsetting, and 22% found it extremely upsetting, with extremely upsetting defined as equivalent to the loss of a child.

The indefinite time frame for resuming treatment when the New York survey was conducted may have been a major source of distress for patients, one of the researchers said at the American Society for Reproductive Medicine's 2020 annual meeting, held virtually this year.

"They don't know when they might have that chance again," said Jenna M. Turocy, MD, of Columbia University Fertility Center, New York.

COVID-19 guidelines published by ASRM on March 17 recommended the suspension of new treatment cycles, including ovulation induction, intrauterine inseminations, and in vitro fertilization (IVF).

An ASRM COVID-19 task force has since supported "the measured resumption of fertility care following the easing of restrictions," said Paul C. Lin, MD, president of the Society for Assisted Reproductive Technology and a member of the task force.

"Over the past several months, significant knowledge has been gained regarding the COVID-19 virus and its impact on patients and the medical system," he said in a news release about the two studies that assessed the pandemic's effects.

Certain precautions remain. "It has become clear that we will need to be practicing COVID-19 protocols at least until an effective and safe vaccine or broadly effective treatment becomes widely available," Lin said.

Desire to Proceed During a Pandemic

The Utah Center for Reproductive Medicine on March 15 suspended new IVF cycles and frozen embryo transfers. The center continued to offer IVF cycles for oncofertility patients on an urgent basis.

In early May, patients whose cycles had been suspended had the option to receive treatment.

"Upon reopening, every patient received standardized counseling from their primary IVF physician," Lauren Verrilli, MD, a reproductive endocrinology and infertility fellow at the University of Utah, Salt Lake City, said at the virtual meeting.

Doctors explained that much remained unknown about COVID-19 in pregnancy, and that it was unclear whether the clinic would need to shut down again. In addition, patients had to undergo COVID-19 testing.

To identify factors associated with proceeding with treatment after the suspension, the researchers compared patients who resumed treatment with patients who did not.

Their analysis included 278 patients who had planned an IVF cycle or frozen embryo transfer (FET) prior to the shutdown. The researchers examined factors such as age, parity, anti-Müllerian hormone, antral follicle count, history of prior IVF cycles or FET, number of frozen blastocysts, gamete source, and use of a gestational carrier.

In all, 62% of patients opted to receive treatment once restrictions were lifted, including 69 of the 133 (52%) patients with planned fresh cycles and 104 of the 145 (72%) patients with planned FET cycles.

Among those with planned fresh cycles, those who opted to resume treatment tended to be older than those who did not resume treatment, with a median age of 37 years versus 35 years, but the difference was not statistically significant.

Among patients with planned FET cycles, those who did not resume treatment were more likely to have a gestational carrier, compared with those who resumed treatment (7% vs. 1%). In some cases, gestational carriers lived in another state and the pandemic complicated travel arrangements, which contributed to delays, Verrilli said.

The analysis did not include information about income or socioeconomic status, which may play a role in patients' decisions, Verrilli said.

Emotional Impact of Indefinite Delay

Fertility treatment is often time sensitive, particularly for patients with advanced reproductive age or diminished ovarian reserve, and indefinite postponement of fertility treatment potentially could lead some patients to lose the ability to conceive with their own gametes, Turocy said.

In early April, Turocy and colleagues surveyed patients at their academic fertility center in New York City to assess patients' reactions to the ASRM recommendations. They decided to conduct the study after they realized that treatment cancellations were having a significant emotional effect.

Investigators emailed an 18-item survey to more than 3,000 patients.

In all, 518 patients completed the survey, a response rate of 17%. Patients had an average age of 37 years (range, 23-52 years), and 92% were female. About 24% had children, and 66% had received at least one fertility treatment.

Half had a cycle canceled because of the COVID-19 pandemic, including timed intercourse cycles (5%), intrauterine insemination cycles (23%), IVF cycles with a planned fresh embryo transfer (10%), IVF with all frozen embryos (27%), egg freeze cycles (3%), and FET cycles (30%).

In response to survey questions about whether they agreed with ASRM recommendations, "the reactions were mixed," Turocy said.

About 36% of patients agreed all fertility cycles should be canceled, 22% were unsure, and 43% disagreed with the recommendation. Patients who had a cycle canceled were slightly more likely to agree with the cancellations (40% agreed) than those who did not have a cycle canceled (30% agreed), Turocy said.

Most respondents would have preferred an option to start a treatment cycle in consultation with their doctor. Half "would have chosen to start a new cycle during the height of the pandemic in New York City," Turocy said.

Patient opinions may vary by region and depend on the severity of COVID-19 outbreaks there, and they also might change over time, Turocy suggested. In addition, the opinions and characteristics of patients who responded to the anonymous survey may differ from those of patients who did not respond.

Verrilli, Turocy, and Lin had no relevant financial disclosures.

This article originally appeared on MDedge.com, part of the Medscape Professional Network.

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