Superbug Infections, Deaths Rose At Beginning of Pandemic

NEW YORK — The toll of drug-resistant “superbug” infections worsened during the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic, U.S. health officials said Tuesday.

A Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report shows that 2020 saw a 15 percent increase in the number of hospital deaths and infections caused by some of most serious bacterial diseases. This is after many years of decline.

Dr. Arjun Srinivasan, a CDC expert, called it “a startling reversal” that he hopes was a one-year blip.

Officials from the CDC think there are many factors that may have led to this rise. These include how COVID-19 treatment was done when it first arrived in the U.S. early 2020.

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Antimicrobial Resistance is the phenomenon where bacteria and other fungi are able to overcome the antimicrobial drugs they have been prescribed. The misuse of antibiotics was a big reason — unfinished or unnecessary prescriptions that didn’t kill the germs made them stronger.

Prior to the epidemic, U.S. superbug infection rates were declining according to health officials. The number of deaths from drug-resistant diseases in the United States fell by 18% between 2012 & 2017. In 2017, 36,000 Americans lost their lives. Hospitals were credited by the government for using antibiotics with more care and in preventing patients from spreading germs.

The CDC doesn’t have 2020 data on all superbugs, partly because health officials had to focus on COVID-19. But it does have data from seven kinds of bacterial and fungal infections that were detected in hospital patients, including MRSA and a bug called CRE that’s known as “the nightmare bacteria.”

According to the CDC, there were an average of 15 percent more infections from this group of germs than deaths.

Officials from the CDC suggested that almost 80% of COVID-19 patients were treated with antibiotics between March and October 2020. As doctors used more antibiotics to combat the coronavirus and other bacterial co-infections, their patients were less ill.

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In 2021, the overall usage of antibiotics had dropped to 0%. Srinivasan pointed out that other medical devices such as ventilators, catheters and ventilators may be decreasing in use. Those devices, which are used on severely ill patients, can become inroads into patient’s bodies for drug-resistant germs.

Still, any uptick in COVID-19 hospitalizations — like the one being seen in the U.S. currently — increases that risk, he said.

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