Drug-resistant infections in the US have risen sharply during the pandemic, and experts warn it's getting worse as COVID patients overwhelm hospital resources

Drug-resistant infections in the US have risen sharply during the pandemic, and experts warn it's getting worse as COVID patients overwhelm hospital resources
COD Newsroom
  • Antibiotic-resistant bacteria have posed a threat for many years, especially in hospitals.
  • A CDC study found that such infections increased during the COVID-19 pandemic.
  • Drug resistance poses a threat to modern healthcare, especially for vulnerable COVID patients in hospital.

The overuse of antibiotics has led to a rise in drug-resistant bacteria over time. These "superbugs" pose an especially dire threat in hospitals, where an antibiotic-resistant germ like MRSA could leave an already sick patient without any treatment options.

According to a recent study from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the increase in these infections was exacerbated by COVID-19, as hospitals overflowed with severely ill coronavirus patients in 2020.

Superbugs were a topic of concern in the medical community long before COVID-19 was in our vocabulary, Helen Boucher, an infectious disease doctor and interim dean of Tufts University School of Medicine, told Insider.

But the dual threat of the coronavirus and drug resistance ups the stakes, and it's increasing the risk of death for COVID-19 patients.

"This is not a new problem in our country or in the world," Boucher said. "It's a growing problem, and many of us call it a silent pandemic, because it is, ever, ever so much still with us, despite our very appropriate focus on COVID."


Why drug resistance is such a threat

The CDC tracks hospital-acquired infections with a ratio of expected infections to actual infections, or the standardized infection ratio. That metric increased for most healthcare-associated infections, including drug-resistant skin and blood infections, between late 2019 and late 2020.

When a patient gets sick with a bacterial infection, the doctor's first move is usually to prescribe antibiotics. Even then, an additional infection can spell trouble for patients who are already ill; in one study, 48% of COVID patients with secondary bacterial infections died. For patients who had multiple bacterial infections on top of COVID, 75% died.

If the secondary infection proves to be resistant to multiple drugs, the patient's chance of survival is even slimmer.

For instance, MRSA is a strain of the Staphylococcus aureus bacteria that can't be killed by several commonly available antibiotics. Some other antibiotics can treat the infection, especially if it's only in a superficial cut on the skin.

But the pace of antibiotic resistance is speeding up. It only takes about a year on average for bacteria to grow resistant to treatment, when they used to take 21 years to evolve back in the 1960s.


We have some tools to fight superbugs before it's too late, Boucher explained. Good hospital hygiene, infectious disease surveillance, and antibiotic stewardship - prescribing the correct medication and dosage to avoid unnecessary overuse of the drugs - can minimize the threat.

"If we don't do the things that we know will help to decrease antibiotic resistance, the healthcare that we all take for granted today - things like simple surgeries, C-sections, chemotherapy for cancer - all of those things will be in jeopardy," Boucher said.

Healthcare workers are essential to infection prevention - and they're burnt out

Infection prevention measures, such as frequent handwashing and careful placement of catheters, can help bring down the risk of hospital-acquired illnesses. These protocols need to be incentivized on the national level, Boucher said.

However, with doctors and nurses stretched so thin, it's not a matter of individual compliance. Hospitals across the country have been dealing with staff shortages for months, since many nurses quit due to burnout at the peak of the pandemic.

"We need to have a healthcare workforce to be able to achieve all these goals," Boucher said. "We need to have infection prevention practitioners - those are often nurses ... We need infectious disease physicians like myself, and we have a shortage."