The US maternal mortality rate surged in 2021, the second year of the COVID-19 pandemic, with Black women more than twice as likely to die than White women, according to a report released on Thursday.

A total of 1,205 women died in the United States during pregnancy or shortly after giving birth in 2021, up from 861 in 2020 and 754 in 2019, the National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS) said.

The US maternal mortality rate is the highest among high-income nations, and the number of deaths in 2021 was the most since the mid-1960s.

"The most powerful country in the world should not be accepting this as a reality. This is a crisis," said White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre.

There were 32.9 deaths per 100,000 live births in 2021, up from 23.8 per 100,000 in 2020 and 20.1 per 100,000 in 2019, the NCHS said.

The maternal mortality rate for Black women in 2021 was 69.9 deaths per 100,000 live births, 2.6 times the rate for White women, which was 26.6 deaths per 100,000.

The World Health Organization defines maternal mortality as a death while pregnant or within 42 days after delivery from any cause related to or aggravated by pregnancy or its management.

The NCHS report did not provide any reasons for the surge in US maternal deaths in 2021 or the disparity between Black women and White women.

But medical experts said the Covid pandemic was a significant factor, along with socioeconomic conditions and a long-standing lack of access to quality pre- and post-natal care for many Black women.

"The COVID-19 pandemic had a dramatic and tragic effect on maternal death rates, but we cannot let that fact obscure that there was – and still is – already a maternal mortality crisis," said Iffath Abbasi Hoskins, president of the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists.

Eliminating "racial health inequities" must be a top public health priority, Hoskins said in a statement.

"Pregnant and postpartum Black people continue to make up a disproportionate number of maternal deaths at growing and alarming rates," Hoskins said in a statement. "This trend must be stopped."

The White House said Republicans were making the situation worse with repeated attempts to repeal the Obamacare law, which provides state-subsidized health insurance, and accused them of seeking to cut Medicaid, another program that targets the poor.

"It is incomprehensible and it is incredibly dangerous what we're seeing from our Republican colleagues in Congress," Jean-Pierre said. Republicans are "working to gut health care for Americans," she added.

She said that 40 percent of women rely on Medicaid coverage at the time of delivery.

© Agence France-Presse