Healthcare-Associated Infections Spiked in 2020 in US Hospitals

Lucy Hicks

September 02, 2021

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Several healthcare-associated infections in US hospitals spiked in 2020 compared to the previous year, according to a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) analysis published September 2 in Infection Control and Hospital Epidemiology. Soaring hospitalization rates, sicker patients who required more frequent and intense care, and staffing and supply shortages caused by the COVID-19 pandemic are thought to have contributed to this increase.

This is the first increase in healthcare-associated infections since 2015.

Dr Arjun Srinivasan

These findings "are a reflection of the enormous stress that COVID has placed on our healthcare system," Arjun Srinivasan, MD (Capt, USPHS), the associate director of the CDC's Healthcare-Associated Infection Prevention Programs, in Atlanta, Georgia, told Medscape Medical News. He was not an author of the article, but he supervised the research. "We don't want anyone to read this report and think that it represents a failure of the individual provider or a failure of healthcare providers in this country in their care of COVID patients," he said. He noted that healthcare professionals have provided "tremendously good care to patients under extremely difficult circumstances.

"People don't fail ― systems fail ― and that's what happened here," he said. "Our systems that we need to have in place to prevent healthcare-associated infection simply were not as strong as they needed to be to survive this challenge."

In the study, researchers used data reported to the National Healthcare Safety Network, the CDC's tracking system for healthcare-associated infections. The team compared national standard infection ratios — calculated by dividing the number of reported infections by the number of predicted infections — between 2019 and 2020 for six routinely tracked events:

  • central line-associated bloodstream infections

  • catheter-associated urinary tract infections (CAUTIs)

  • ventilator-associated events (VAEs)

  • infections associated with colon surgery and abdominal hysterectomy

  • Clostridioides difficile infections

  • methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) infections

Infections were estimated using regression models created with baseline data from 2015.

"The new report highlights the need for healthcare facilities to strengthen their infection prevention programs and support them with adequate resources so that they can handle emerging threats to public health, while at the same time ensuring that gains made in combating HAIs [healthcare-associated infections] are not lost," said the Association for Professionals in Infection Control and Epidemiology in a statement.

The analysis revealed significant national increases in central line–associated bloodstream infections, CAUTIs, VAEs, and MRSA infections in 2020 compared to 2019. Among all infection types, the greatest increase was in central-line infections, which were 46% to 47% higher in the third quarter and fourth quarter (Q4) of 2020 relative to the same periods the previous year. VAEs rose by 45%, MRSA infections increased by 34%, and CAUTIs increased by 19% in Q4 of 2020 compared to 2019.

Dr David Calfee

The influx of sicker patients in hospitals throughout 2020 led to more frequent and longer use of medical devices such as catheters and ventilators. The use of these devices increases risk for infection, David P. Calfee, MD, chief medical epidemiologist at the New York–Presbyterian/Weill Cornell Medical Center, in New York City, told Medscape. He is an editor of Infection Control and Hospital Epidemiology and was not involved with the study. Shortages in personal protective equipment and crowded intensive care units could also have affected how care was delivered, he said. These factors could have led to "reductions in the ability to provide some of the types of care that are needed to optimally reduce the risk of infection."

There was either no change or decreases in infections associated with colon surgery or abdominal hysterectomy, likely because there were fewer elective surgeries performed, said Srinivasan. C difficile–associated infections also decreased throughout 2020 compared to the previous year. Common practices to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in hospitals, such as environmental cleaning, use of personal protective equipment, and patient isolation, likely helped to curb the spread of C difficile. Although these mitigating procedures do help protect against MRSA infection, many other factors, notably, the use of medical devices such as ventilators and catheters, can increase the risk for MRSA infection, Srinivasan added.

Although more research is needed to identify the reasons for these spikes in infection, the findings help quantify the scope of these increases across the United States, Calfee said. The data allow hospitals and healthcare professionals to "look back at what we did and then think forward in terms of what we can do different in the future," he added, "so that these stresses to the system have less of an impact on how we are able to provide care."

Srinivasan and Calfee report no relevant financial relationships.

Infect Control Hosp Epidemiol. Published online September 2, 2021. Full text

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