Are Temporary Birth Centers the Answer to Alleviating Hospitals During the COVID-19 Outbreak?

The Jazz Birth Center of Manhattan was born out of an urgent need for low-risk pregnant people to have options outside of giving birth in a hospital.

[Photo: A midwife checks the vitals of a newborn baby.]
The Jazz Birth Center and Brooklyn Birthing Center expect to deliver well over 200 babies this year, according to the midwifery director, Trinisha Williams. ChameleonsEye/

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As the COVID-19 pandemic creates additional barriers to care for people in the hardest-hit communities across the country, clinicians and health-care workers are taking innovative measures to ensure pregnant people who are healthy and low risk are getting the care they need and deserve.

One prime example is now located on the second floor of a former youth hostel: The Jazz Birth Center of Manhattan is a temporary birthing center that opened last week as a secondary location for the Brooklyn Birthing Center, the oldest freestanding birth center in New York City.

The Jazz Birth Center’s name pays homage to the now-defunct Jazz Hostel, its neighbor the Jazz Center, and the role of jazz within the women’s liberation movement in the 1920s. The center has five renovated suites and is now the only freestanding birth center located in Manhattan—a borough of more than 1.6 million people—which speaks to the city’s lack of out-of-hospital birthing options.

There was an “urgent need for low-risk pregnant people to have an option of out-of-hospital birth due to COVID-19 and allow equitable access to a quality and safe birth center providing intensive labor support and physiologic childbirth by a team of skilled midwives who are vetted for their experience, dedication and commitment to the birth center model of care,” Fran Schwartz, interim CEO of Jazz Birth Center and former CEO of the Brooklyn Birth Center, said in a statement. The American Association of Birth Centers (AABC) recommends expanding access to freestanding birth centers for low-risk pregnancies in response to the pandemic.

The Jazz Birth Center is in Midtown, close to Mount Sinai West Hospital, which closed down its own birthing center at the end of 2018 after two decades. Proximity to a hospital makes it safer and more seamless to transfer a patient in the event that medical intervention is needed.

The new facility is taking the same COVID-19 safety measures as Brooklyn Birthing Center: Masks are required, and anyone who enters the facility has their temperature taken and is screened for signs and symptoms of the virus. It is also allowing two support people—a partner and a doula, for example—to be present during deliveries. (Brooklyn Birthing Center allows three.)

At the moment, hospitals in New York City are allowing one support person to be in the room during labor and delivery, which for some meant not being able to have the additional support of a doula or birth worker as planned.

State requirements make opening a freestanding birth center a rigorous process. “When it comes to birth centers, New York and only five or six other states have these ‘certificates of need,’ which is why there is only one licensed and accredited birth center in Brooklyn,” Schwartz told Rewire.News, referring to Brooklyn Birthing Center. The “level of security is an assurance to the public that this is a very safe place for moms to deliver,” Schwartz said.

AABC’s webinar, “How to Start a Freestanding Birth Center in Response to the COVID-19 Crisis,” educates providers on the logistics and planning stages for their own birth center. Dr. Amy Johnson-Grass, president of AABC, said “pop up” emergency facilities like the Jazz Birth Center that are extensions of existing birth centers are easier and faster to open than brand-new freestanding birthing centers.

“Freestanding birth centers across the country are experiencing an increase in people wanting to transfer to birth centers to avoid the hospital during COVID-19. We are seeing hospitals and freestanding birth centers working collaboratively to put plans in place in the event hospitals are overwhelmed,” Johnson-Grass said in a statement. “Along with so many other changes happening in our lives today, I see this as a positive paradigm shift for freestanding birth centers and maternity care in this country. Research supports the freestanding birth center model and its appropriateness for low-risk women.”

Jazz Birth Center received its licensure and New York Department of Health approval on May 7 and was expecting its first deliveries this past weekend. If the facility decides to continue providing services beyond the emergency need due to the pandemic, it will have to apply and go through the licensing process all over again for a permanent license.

“We know that hospitals are not going back to normal any time soon,” Schwartz said. “Women don’t have access, and this is the bigger issue. They don’t have access to midwives, to choices for where and how they can birth. It’s not fair really that women in Manhattan and the boroughs don’t have access to in-network, low cost, effective safe care in the birth center.”

The Jazz Birth Center hopes to change that.

The two facilities—the Jazz Birth Center and Brooklyn Birthing Center—expect to deliver well over 200 babies this year, according to the midwifery director, Trinisha Williams.