As COVID-19 took hold over the past year, hospitals and nursing homes used and reused scarce protective equipment — masks, gloves, gowns. This desperate frugality helped prevent the airborne transfer of the virus.
But it also appears to have helped spread a different set of germs — drug-resistant bacteria and fungi — that have used the chaos of the pandemic to grow opportunistically in healthcare settings around the globe.
The New York Times reports that these bacteria and fungi, like COVID-19, prey on older people, the infirm and those with compromised immune systems such as those living with diabetes, HIV and other conditions.
They can cling tenaciously to clothing and medical equipment, which is why nursing homes and hospitals before the pandemic were increasingly focused on cleaning rooms and changing gowns to prevent their spread.
That emphasis all but slipped away amid an all-consuming focus on the coronavirus. In fact, experts warn, the changes in hygiene and other practices caused by the COVID-19 fight are likely to have contributed to the spread of these drug-resistant germs.
“Seeing the world as a one-pathogen world is really problematic,” said Dr. Susan S. Huang, an infectious disease specialist at the University of California at Irvine Medical School, noting that the nearly singular focus on the pandemic appears to have led to more spread of drug-resistant infection. “We have every reason to believe the problem has gotten worse.”
A few data points reinforce her fears, including isolated outbreaks of various drug-resistant infections in Florida, New Jersey and California, as well as in India, Italy, Peru and France. Overall figures have been hard to track because many nursing homes and hospitals simply stopped screening for the germs as resources were diverted to COVID-19.
Particularly troublesome have been growing case counts of a fungus called Candida auris.
Noxious drug-resistant bacteria are surfacing too, including Carbapenem-resistant Acinetobacter baumannii, which is considered an “urgent health threat” by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Huang and other experts said they are not suggesting that the priority on fighting COVID-19 was misplaced. Rather, they say that renewed attention must be paid to drug-resistant germs.
Over the years, critics have charged that hospitals have been lax in their efforts to confront these infections because it is expensive to disinfect equipment, train staff, isolate infected patients and screen for the germs.
But after the pandemic began, there was much less monitoring and even, at times, a wholesale breakdown of communications about the transfer of such patients, experts said. Plus, the sickest COVID-19 patients were put on ventilators, where drug-resistant infections can cling and then spread.
Another possible contributor has been the heavy and regular use of steroids to treat COVID-19. These drugs help alleviate the virus’s most dangerous symptoms but can leave the immune system compromised in a way that allows other germs to more easily infiltrate the body.
The combination of these factors “is perfect” for the fungus to “take hold,” said Dr. Tom Chiller, the head of the fungal division of the CDC.
Crucially, a Florida Department of Health study found that the spread of the fungus from one patient to the next may well have come from health care providers carrying the germ on protective gowns or gloves, as well as on mobile computers and other equipment that had been insufficiently cleaned.
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