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Couples struggling with infertility are stuck in limbo during COVID-19

The coronavirus pandemic is putting many infertility treatments on hold, but couples are not giving up hope.
/ Source: TODAY

The coronavirus pandemic is causing delays and cancellations for everything from graduation ceremonies to medical procedures. And, for the one in eight couples that struggle with infertility, seeing procedures like IVF transfers get canceled can be a devastating blow during an already emotional time.

Tiffany Banuls and her husband, Louis, endured a miscarriage in 2018, followed by unsuccessful attempts to conceive for several months. Due to fertility issues identified in both herself and her husband, Banuls says her doctor suggested they immediately try IVF.

Tiffany Banuls and her husband, Louis, have had their IVF plans put on hold while they wait for the suggested halt to infertility treatments to be lifted.Tiffany Banuls

"Our frozen embryo transfer was scheduled for March 26," said Banuls, who lives in Wesley Chapel, Florida. "Then on March 18 I got the call that they were cancelling all transfers until further notice due to COVID-19."

"To be honest, I did not take it well," she continued. "To be one week away and have it all come crashing down was my last straw ... I understood the reasoning and the logic as to why they were cancelling, but I was so close. I thought maybe I'd squeak by. I was supposed to find out if I was pregnant in the first week of April."

"The overall unpredictability of infertility — it's a lot to handle. Throw in a pandemic and your already hormonal emotions are scattered all over the place."

Maddie Baldassari and her husband, Tony, have been trying to conceive for 15 years and have experienced a variety of setbacks.

Maddie Baldassari and her husband, Tony, were going through the process of IVF with donor eggs when they learned their treatment would be put on hold due to COVID-19.Maddie Baldassari

"It has been a merry-go-round of emotions, and every time I think we are progressing, the ride switches backward," said Baldassari, who lives in Durham, North Carolina. "We were in the process of trying for one last go-around of IVF when this all began — I didn't produce enough eggs and we were going forward with donor eggs, but now they have halted any new procedures for at least 90 days, so we cannot choose a donor or start shots or prepare for the procedure until further notice."

Baldassari says if this attempt at getting pregnant fails, they will have run out of treatment options, making her anxious to move forward.

"The overall unpredictability of infertility — it's a lot to handle," Baldassari added. "Throw in a pandemic and your already hormonal emotions are scattered all over the place. My thoughts about this are complicated. I desire motherhood, but not at a cost to my health or the baby's health, so I understand the decisions that have been made."

When Lauren Buchanan and her husband, Trevor, got married in August 2018, the Yonkers, New York couple immediately started trying to conceive. After a year of not becoming pregnant, they decided to seek the help of a fertility specialist. They went through three unsuccessful rounds of intrauterine insemination and, in January of 2020, started IVF, only to have two unsuccessful transfers.

Lauren and Trevor Buchanan were scheduled for an IVF transfer at the end of March, but learned it was cancelled due to the pandemic.Lauren Buchanan

"I had a second egg retrieval this March, and was scheduled to have a transfer on March 30," Buchanan told TODAY Parents. "It ended up being cancelled because of COVID-19."

The couple feels disappointed about the change, especially because Trevor, a police officer and member of the Navy Reserve, is being deployed this spring and had hoped to be by his wife's side during the procedure.

"I wanted to be able to experience this with him in case it was successful instead of telling him from thousands of miles away that I'm pregnant," Buchanan explained.

"My stress and anxiety levels are high," said Buchanan, adding that she'll proceed with her IVF procedure when able, even if her husband has deployed. "I would be lost without my family ... my parents are ready to take on this journey with me and step in until Trevor returns home."

Dr. Barry Witt, medical director at WINFertility and Greenwich Fertility, is Buchanan's doctor, and says a recommendation from the American Society of Reproductive Medicine's COVID-19 task force led to a limit in the fertility procedures being performed around the country.

"The main reason is to limit the risk of viral transmission," Witt explained. "Fertility treatments require very frequent visits to the office for things like ultrasounds and monitoring, which means a much higher risk of exposure to other people."

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Witt says infertility treatments are also being postponed to reduce exposure to coronavirus for clinic patients and staff and because many practices affiliated with hospitals have had to share space, equipment and personal protective equipment with those facilities.

According to Witt, it's important to weigh the risks and benefits to the patient before deciding whether to go through with a fertility procedure during the current crisis.

"It's still unknown what it means to get pregnant in the face of a pandemic," said Witt. "We don't know for certain if women who are pregnant are at a higher risk for complications from the virus. And, if something were to go wrong, like a miscarriage, there's the chance of limited care or exposure to the virus if there's a need to go to the emergency room or a hospital."

While there's not a definite end in site for the pause on infertility treatments, Witt says as the number of coronavirus cases goes down, some facilities will resume their practices while taking as many precautions as they can to keep patients and staff healthy.

Witt understands the disappointment many couples are feeling in the face of delayed procedures, but says in most cases, waiting a few more months will not affect the outcome.

"It's been shown that delaying fertility treatment by two or three months has no long-term effect, so I would reassure people that even if they have to wait, it's not going to have a significant detriment to their chance of getting pregnant."

What can couples do to help navigate this new level of grief and loss surrounding infertility?

Jamie Krieter, a licensed clinical social worker who is certified in perinatal mental health, is the founder of Nurture Therapy, a counseling practice that supports women throughout their reproductive journeys. Kreiter also works with Motherfigure, an online community that supports new moms and pregnant women.

Kreiter says the uncertainty and unknowns surrounding the delay of infertility treatments are causing grief and a sense of loss for women.

"When someone is going through a fertility journey, there's that loss of being able to conceive a child naturally or how you expected to conceive a child," said Kreiter. "Now all of a sudden there's a literal pause in treatment and there's a new sense of loss added to an already challenging time."

Kreiter helps women manage their anxiety.

"One of the questions I like my clients to ask themselves when they're really anxious is, 'What's the problem right now?'" said Kreiter. "Anxiety is future thinking, so this is bigger than, 'I missed a procedure,' it's about anxiety about the future ... the problem right now is that fertility treatments are on hold and they're not sure what's going to happen in the immediate future. Coping with that feels much more manageable than thinking way into the future about having a baby or timelines."

Kreiter recommends some general strategies.

"Things like getting enough sleep, having good nutrition and not stress-eating, getting exercise and getting outside," Kreiter explained. "And support. Social distancing is not social isolation. There are still a lot of ways to feel supported by those around you, so seek those out."

Join the conversation about infertility on the TODAY Parenting Team.