Hospital infection rates rose and fell with COVID-19 surges in 2021: 5 findings

Healthcare-associated infection rates fluctuated in conjunction with COVID-19 hospitalization trends in 2021, hitting a new high in the third quarter as the delta variant swept the country, according to a study published May 20 in Infection Control & Hospital Epidemiology.

CDC researchers analyzed HAI data hospitals reported to the agency's National Healthcare Safety Network in the first three quarters of 2021 and compared these figures to data collected during the same period in 2019. 

Five study findings:

1. Ventilator-associated events increased the most in 2021 of all infection types. Compared to the same periods in 2019, infection rates were 51 percent higher in the first quarter of 2021 and 60 percent higher in the third quarter, when the delta variant spurred record hospitalizations in the U.S. 

2. Overall, HAI rates were lowest in the second quarter of 2021, when COVID-19 hospitalizations were down nationwide. 

3. Rates of central line-associated bloodstream infections, catheter-associated urinary tract infections and antibiotic-resistant staph infections followed similar patterns as ventilator-associated events, researchers found.

4. Rates of Clostridioides difficile declined in 2021, which could be due to pandemic-related improvements in hand hygiene, personal protective equipment use and environmental cleaning, researchers said.

5. Surgical site infection rates remained steady, likely because operating room procedures were largely unchanged during the pandemic, they said.

"These findings highlight the continued challenges experienced in hospital infection prevention during the second year of the COVID-19 pandemic and underscore the need to establish resilient approaches to reducing infections during times of system stress," lead author Lindsey Lastinger, an epidemiologist at the CDC, said in a news release the Society for Healthcare Epidemiology of America shared with Becker's.  

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