According to an analysis by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the spread of drug-resistant infections has skyrocketed during the coronavirus pandemic, which killed nearly 30,000 people in 2020 and much of the recent progress in containing the spread of so-called superbugs, has been wiped out.
Deaths from infections refractory to antibiotics and antifungal drugs rose 15 percent in the first year of the pandemic compared to 2019, federal health officials found. Much of the increase was due to the chaos caused by the coronavirus as doctors and nurses struggled to treat waves of critically ill patients whose disease they didn’t fully understand before vaccines and treatments were widely available.
About 40 percent of the deaths were among hospitalized patients, with the rest taking place in nursing homes and other health care facilities, the CDC report found. According to the study, many frontline hospital workers mistakenly administered antibiotics for viral lung infections that didn’t respond to such drugs at first. Many of the sickest patients spent weeks or months in intensive care units, increasing the chances of drug-resistant insects entering their bodies through intravenous lines, catheters and breathing tubes.
The death toll is likely much higher, federal health officials said, as public health labs that normally track drug-resistant infections have been flooded during the pandemic, leaving significant data gaps for many of the most dangerous pathogens.
The CDC said the outbreaks of drug-resistant infections were likely caused by a nationwide shortage of face masks, gloves and jackets — the vital armor that protects health workers and helps limit the spread of pathogens as they travel from room to room. Due to staff shortages and overburdened departments in many hospitals, infection control specialists were often reassigned to provide basic patient care rather than performing their usual duties of promoting the proper use of antibiotics, hand washing and other safety precautions, the report said.
“These setbacks can and should be temporary,” said Dr. Rochelle P. Walensky, the director of the CDC, in a statement accompanying the report. “The Covid-19 pandemic has made it clear: prevention is preparedness. We need to prepare our public health systems to fight multiple threats at once.”
Federal officials were especially concerned about the increased spread of some of the most dangerous pathogens. They found a 78 percent spike in infections from Acinetobacter, a bacterium resistant to the antibiotic carbapenem that often spreads among intensive care patients. and a 60 percent rise in Candida auris, a deadly fungus that often stalks nursing homes and long-term care facilities.
The analysis highlights what public health experts have long described as a slow pandemic. More than 700,000 people around the world die each year from infections that no longer respond to antimicrobial drugs, and health experts warn the death toll could reach 10 million by 2050 without a concerted effort to reduce antibiotic overuse and develop new drugs. to develop .
Antimicrobial resistance occurs when bacteria and fungi mutate to outsmart the drugs designed to overcome them. This evolutionary process is inevitable, but the more these drugs are given to humans and farm animals, the more likely the resistance is to develop.
Nearly a third of all antibiotics are incorrectly prescribed, according to the CDC, often for respiratory illnesses, such as the common cold that is 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 stand in stark contrast to previous reports charting slow but steady progress in fighting the hospital-acquired infections that kill 35,000 Americans each year and sicken 2.8 million. Between 2012 and 2019, drug-resistant infections dropped 18 percent, according to the agency’s 2019 report, which found the improvements were linked to increased investment in programs to reduce the inappropriate use of antibiotics in hospitals.
The most recent report confirmed what many health professionals 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, the 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 re-invest in efforts to address this public health problem.”