Image of Ann Marie Pettis, BSN, RN, CIC, president of APIC

Federal data released this week show dramatic increases in healthcare associated infections (HAIs) during the first full year of the pandemic.

Increased rates of MRSA, central line-associated bloodstream infections, catheter-associated urinary tract infections, and ventilator infections were so alarming that the nation’s leading infection control group said they “essentially wipe out nearly a decade of progress against HAIs.”

“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 are not lost,” said Ann Marie Pettis, BSN, RN, CIC, president of the Association for Professionals in Infection Control and Epidemiology.

The data was pulled from the National Healthcare Safety Network and published in Infection Control & Hospital Epidemiology Thursday.

The largest increases were of bloodstream infections associated with central line catheters inserted to provide medication and other fluids over long periods. Rates of central line infections were 46% to 47% higher in the third and fourth quarters of 2020 compared to 2019. 

Rates of ventilator-associated infections, used to support many hospitalized COVID-19 patients, increased by 45% in the fourth quarter of 2020 compared to 2019. But the CDC analysis found sharp increases even when controlling for more devices being used.

“Infection control practices in COVID-19 wards often adapted to shortages of personal protective equipment, responded to fear of healthcare personnel, and did not always lend themselves to better infection prevention,” said Tara N. Palmore, M.D., and David K. Henderson, M.D., of the National Institutes of Health, in an editorial that accompanied the study. “The success of the previous several years, with steady declines in rates of these (healthcare-associated) and device-related infections, further accentuated the upswings that occurred in 2020.” 

Bright spot for nursing homes

In some good news for nursing homes, the study found no increase in Clostridium difficile infections, which often plague seniors after antibiotic use. The study said that success against this infection may have been a result of increased hand hygiene, environmental cleaning, patient isolation and extended use of personal protective equipment. 

“We now have an opportunity to use this data and take action to invest in our public health infrastructure, expand our nation’s infection prevention and control workforce, and put infection preventionists – specialists who are trained and certified to prevent infections — at the center of these efforts,” Pettis said Thursday.

Federal officials have announced a rule requiring an infection preventionist for every skilled nursing facility in the country, though providers are still awaiting details.