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COVID Pandemic Slowed Progress Against Antibiotic-Resistant 'Superbugs'

TUESDAY, July 12, 2022 (HealthDay News) -- The COVID pandemic has eaten into the progress made against drug-resistant infections, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The agency reported that hospital-related infections and deaths grew by 15% during the pandemic's first year, 2019 to 2020. The increase owes to antimicrobial resistance -- bacteria, viruses, fungi and parasites changing to become resistant to the usual treatments, making them much harder to treat and cure.

"This setback can and must be temporary. The COVID-19 pandemic has unmistakably shown us that antimicrobial resistance will not stop if we let down our guard; there is no time to waste," said Michael Craig, director of the CDC’s Antibiotic Resistance Coordination and Strategy Unit.

"The best way to avert a pandemic caused by an antimicrobial-resistant pathogen is to identify gaps and invest in prevention to keep our nation safe," Craig said in an agency news release.

For the report, the CDC analyzed antimicrobial resistance following COVID peaks in 2020. The researchers found a significant increase in drug-resistant infections during hospitalization, which were up 15% from 2019 to 2020 among seven pathogens.

There were increases in infections from:

  • Carbapenem-resistant Acinetobacter -- 78%

  • Multidrug-resistant Pseudomonas aeruginosa -- 32%

  • Vancomycin-resistant Enterococcus (VRE) -- 14%

  • Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) -- 13%

Antifungal-resistant threats also rose in 2020. Candida auris was up 60%, and other Candida species, 26%.

Between 2012 and 2017, antimicrobial-resistant infections fell by 27%, researchers noted.

The CDC attributed the increase in infections to increased use of antibiotics and difficulty following infection prevention and control guidelines. The pandemic likely caused an increase in health care-associated, antimicrobial-resistant infections, officials said.

Dr. Daniel McQuillen, president of the Infectious Diseases Society of America, said urgent steps must be taken to fight back.

"This is no longer a future crisis but one that is at America's doorstep and needs to be addressed now," he said in a statement. "Whenever there are high levels of hospitalizations, rates of antimicrobial-resistant infections and deaths will likely further increase unless we take steps to prevent them."

McQuillen called for U.S. Congress to pass the bipartisan PASTEUR Act, which would fund development of new antibiotics and efforts to guide antibiotic use.

The new study noted that in the pandemic's first year, more than 29,400 people died from antimicrobial-resistant infections associated with health care. But, it added, the actual number of deaths may be much higher because of limited reporting and lack of complete data for deaths from some germs.

Researchers noted that progress toward limiting antibiotics was curtailed during the early months of the COVID pandemic as doctors tried to treat patients who were suffering from fever and shortness of breath -- even though antibiotics are useless against viruses. Still, from March to October 2020 nearly 80% of hospitalized COVID patients were treated with them, the study found.

Although many health care settings had antimicrobial resistance programs, many were suspended due to the pressure of treating COVID patients, researchers said. This was particularly true in nursing homes.

"We need to emphasize and expand the implementation of the effective prevention strategies that are already in CDC’s toolbox to all health care facilities," said Dr. Denise Cardo, director of CDC's Division of Healthcare Quality Promotion.

"We made significant progress before the pandemic, and I'm confident that we will make significant progress going forward," she said in the CDC release.

More information

For more on antimicrobial resistance, visit the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

SOURCES: U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, news release, July 12, 2022; Infectious Diseases Society of America, news release, July 12, 2022

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