Feb. 10 (UPI) -- At least 20 outbreaks of antibiotic-resistant infections have occurred in hospitals across the country since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said Wednesday.
The outbreaks, which involved diseases that do not respond to treatment with currently available antibiotics, occurred in treatment and observation units that house patients infected with the coronavirus, according to the agency.
Several of the outbreaks were linked with changes in hospital infection and control practices due to the pandemic, including possibly the reuse of personal protective equipment by staff.
CDC officials said the incidents highlight the continued threat posed by antibiotic-resistant pathogens as COVID-19 spreads in many parts of the country.
"The last thing we want to see is patients who survive COVID succumb to an antibiotic-resistant [infection]," Dr. Arjun Srinivasan, the CDC's associate director for healthcare-associated infection prevention programs, said on Wednesday.
Srinivasan was speaking before the Presidential Advisory Council on Combating Antibiotic-Resistant Bacteria virtual meeting.
Antibiotic-resistant infections develop as a result of overuse or inappropriate use of these vital drugs. Increased exposure to antibiotics allows infection-causing pathogens to mutate and develop defenses against the drugs, according to the CDC.
More than 2.8 million antibiotic-resistant infections occur in the United States, and more than 35,000 people die as a result, the CDC estimates.
As a result, the CDC and other agencies have led national efforts to encourage appropriate use of antibiotics and, hopefully, limit the impact of resistant infections. Since 2016, the CDC has allocated more than $550 million toward these efforts.
Although more COVID-19 patients tested positive for antibiotic-resistant infections than those with confirmed cases of the flu in 2020, people with the coronavirus are not believed to be at greater risk for these diseases than others, the CDC said.
The increased prevalence of antibiotic-resistant infections in these patients is likely due to the fact they spend more time in the hospital, and thus have increased exposure to resistant pathogens, than those with the flu.
The outbreaks of infections in COVID-19 hospital facilities occurred despite an overall drop in antibiotic prescribing between 2019 and 2020.
Antibiotic prescriptions dispensed by retail pharmacies nationally declined 32% from 2019 to 2020, perhaps due to fewer people seeking treatment for non-coronavirus health problems, the agency said.
In January 2018, approximately 25 million antibiotic prescriptions were dispensed in the United States, based on CDC estimates. In December 2020, that number dropped to roughly 17 million.
"The COVID-19 pandemic has reinforced to all of that it's impossible to overestimate importance of curtailing the spread of antibiotic-resistant infections," Srinivasan said.