PEOPLE spoke with Dr. Zev Williams about what patients seeking fertility treatments can do while their services may be halted due to the COVID-19 pandemic

By Jen Juneau
April 24, 2020 04:47 PM
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Doctor and patient

As fertility clinics are minimizing their elective in-office services amid the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, many patients who are already on tight biological timelines may find themselves feeling helpless about what to do with the time between now and when they'll be able to seek treatments like intrauterine insemination (IUI) and in vitro fertilization (IVF).

In honor of National Infertility Awareness Week, PEOPLE spoke with Dr. Zev Williams, MD, PhD, Director of the Columbia University Fertility Center, about this group of hopeful parents who, like everyone, have no idea when life will resume as "normal" — and in what capacity that will be in when it comes to their treatments specifically.

"Having to delay the chances of conceiving," Dr. Williams says, has been "devastating" for patients — so much so, in fact, that he and his Columbia colleague Dr. Eric Forman co-authored a paper called The Emotional Impact of the ASRM Guidelines on Fertility Patients During the COVID-19 Pandemic, which found that 22 percent of those surveyed equated canceled treatment cycles to the feelings surrounding the loss of a child.

"On an emotional level, I think it's always hard to have your cycle be delayed. [It's] something you've been preparing for, looking forward too," Dr. Williams adds. "Usually, before a patient even comes in the door, they've been trying for a while to conceive. So now to have this surprise or sudden delay is very upsetting."

The positive news is that, for many female patients with "good ovarian reserve" (meaning the number of eggs a woman still has, often assessed through an Anti-Müllerian hormone (AMH) blood test), a few months of delayed treatment won't "make a meaningful impact on their chances of conceiving," he says.

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Doctor with couple
| Credit: Getty

But on the flip side, a few months "could mean the difference between having a viable embryo and pregnancy and not," such as in older women with a lower ovarian reserve or patients undergoing chemotherapy treatments that could impede their ability to freeze their eggs in that previously planned time frame.

"What people would like to have — and by people, I mean patients and [doctors] — would be some medication you could use to keep the ovaries and the eggs from aging during this time," Dr. Williams tells PEOPLE. "Unfortunately, that does not exist [yet]. ... So right now, it's, what can we do to try to, if we can't slow the rate of diminishing of eggs, at least not cause that to accelerate?"

So what can patients do now to make sure they're healthy, both physically and emotionally, in the time leading up to treatments? First, don't go overboard on supplements (they "may actually be causing harm," Dr. Williams says of "megadoses" of pill-based nutrients), and "stay healthy, eat well" and "exercise regularly," he adds.

Advice "unique to the COVID-19 age" would be to try to avoid snacking too much despite how tempting it might be while stuck inside and to make sure one's vitamin D levels are adequate through a supplement if necessary, considering fewer people will be getting the amount they need from sunlight since a lot more time is being spent indoors. ("Ten to 20 minutes of sunlight a day" is what Dr. Williams recommends.)

"Maintaining good levels of physical activity is important" as well, he adds, pointing out that this is especially crucial for many who are used to being more active for work and aren't at the moment due to the spread of the virus. "Moderate activity, both in anticipation of pregnancy and in early pregnancy, [is good]."

Couple at home

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The good news is the fact that "the field of fertility medicine has advanced so much over the years that success in general [is more common] than it has ever been before," Dr. Williams says, marveling at "how far the field has come" in the 40-plus years since the first baby was born after being conceived via IVF.

He also emphasizes the importance of educating one's self on their respective process, saying that "knowledge is very helpful" and driving home the point that "a delay of a few months will not make a meaningful impact" for most.

In the meantime, Dr. Williams encourages patients to keep in contact with their clinics, and insists that many practices (including his) are doing their best to work with more time-conscious patients on the steps they can take right now to get them in and back to their regularly scheduled treatments as soon — and safely — as possible.

"[We] put together a very careful and responsible approach to allow those patients for whom time is so critical to be able to start while still protecting patients, staff, providers and the healthcare system," he tells PEOPLE. "There's a lot of measures that we've taken to mitigate the situation and make it as safe as possible for everyone involved, to be able to safely [administer] fertility treatments when time if of the essence and delays can be very detrimental."

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