Drug-Resistant Infections in Hospitals Soared During Pandemic, CDC Says

The spread of drug-resistant infections increased during the coronavirus pandemic, killing nearly 30,000 people in 2020 and undoing much of the recent progress made in containing the spread of so-called superbugs, according to an analysis by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Disease Prevention.

Deaths caused by infections immune to antibiotics and antifungal drugs increased 15 percent during the first year of the pandemic compared to 2019, federal health officials found. Much of the surge was related to the chaos wrought by the coronavirus, as doctors and nurses scrambled to treat waves of seriously ill patients whose illness they didn’t fully understand, before vaccines and treatments became widely available.

About 40 percent of the deaths were among hospitalized patients, with the rest occurring in nursing homes and other health care settings, the CDC report found. Early on, many frontline hospital workers mistakenly administered antibiotics for viral lung infections that didn’t respond to those drugs, according to the study. Many of the sickest patients spent weeks or months in intensive care units, increasing the chances that drug-resistant microbes could enter their bodies through IVs, catheters and ventilation tubes.

The death toll is likely to be much higher, federal health officials said, because public health labs that normally track drug-resistant infections have been overwhelmed during the pandemic, leading to significant gaps in data for many. of the most dangerous pathogens.

The CDC said outbreaks of drug-resistant infections were likely instigated by a national shortage of masks, gloves and gowns, the vital armor that protects health care workers and helps limit the spread of pathogens as they travel from room to room. to another Due to understaffing and overwhelmed wards in many hospitals, infection control specialists were often reassigned to provide basic patient care instead of carrying out their regular duties of promoting appropriate antibiotic use, handwashing, hands and other security measures, according to the report.

“These setbacks can and should be temporary,” CDC Director Dr. Rochelle P. Walensky said in a statement accompanying the report. “The Covid-19 pandemic has made it clear: prevention is preparation. We must prepare our public health systems to combat multiple threats simultaneously.”

Federal officials were especially concerned about the increased spread of some of the most dangerous pathogens. They found a 78 percent increase in Acinetobacter infections, a bacterium that is resistant to the antibiotic carbapenem and often spreads among intensive care patients. and a 60 percent increase in Candida auris, a deadly fungus that often lurks in nursing homes and long-term care facilities.

The analysis highlights what public health experts have long described as a slowly evolving pandemic. More than 700,000 people worldwide die each year from infections that no longer respond to antimicrobial drugs, and health experts warn the death toll could rise to 10 million by 2050 without a concerted effort to reduce the number of deaths. overuse of antibiotics and develop new drugs.

Antimicrobial resistance occurs when bacteria and fungi mutate to outsmart the drugs that are designed to defeat them. This evolutionary process is inevitable, but the more these drugs are given to people and farm animals, the more likely it is that resistance will occur.

Nearly a third of all antibiotics are prescribed in error, according to the CDC, often for respiratory illnesses like colds caused by viruses. The problem appears to have grown during the pandemic: Eighty percent of hospitalized Covid patients received antibiotics between March and October 2020, the agency noted.

The CDC’s findings contrast sharply with earlier reports that had recorded slow but steady progress in fighting hospital-acquired infections that kill 35,000 Americans a year and sicken 2.8 million. Between 2012 and 2019, drug-resistant infections fell 18 percent, according to the agency’s 2019 report, which found improvements were linked to increased investment in programs to reduce inappropriate use of antibiotics in hospitals. hospitals.

The most recent report confirmed what many health care workers and public health experts had suspected based on anecdotal reports and a handful of previous studies.

“The magnitude of how much worse it has gotten is really alarming,” said David Hyun, director of the Antibiotic Resistance Project at the Pew Charitable Trusts, a non-governmental organization. “It also underscores the urgency that we really need to focus and reinvest in efforts to address this public health issue.”

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