Antibiotics overused in coronavirus patients hospitalized early on in pandemic: study

The study is said to be one of the largest to date on antibiotic use in hospitalized COVID-19 patients

The majority of patients hospitalized with COVID-19 at the start of the pandemic were overprescribed antibiotics, suggests the findings of new research from the Pew Charitable Trusts. 

Antibiotics were overprescribed to hospitalized COVID-19 patients primarily between February and July 2020, when few therapies and treatments were available for those sickened with the novel disease. 

The study — said to be one of the largest to date on antibiotic use in hospitalized COVID-19 patients — was conducted through the analysis of electronic health records of nearly 6,000 hospital admissions from February through July of last year. 

The researchers found that more than half of hospital admissions — 52% — resulted in at least one antibiotic prescription. Some 36% of admissions resulted in multiple antibiotics prescriptions during hospitalization, per the study. What’s more, in 96% of cases, the patient received the antibiotic within the first two days of being admitted to a hospital. 

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By contrast, "only 20% of those admitted with the virus were diagnosed with suspected or confirmed bacterial pneumonia, and 9% were diagnosed with a community-acquired urinary tract infection," per the study. 

Antibiotics cannot be used to fight viruses such as COVID-19; they work only against secondary bacterial infections. Experts who previously spoke to Fox News regarding antibiotic overuse during the pandemic said that doctors prescribed such drugs out of fear patients could develop life-threatening bacterial co-infections.

The researchers in the Pew Charitable Trusts study suggested the same, writing, in part: "Although it was not possible from this study to determine the proportion of antibiotic treatments that were inappropriate, the disparity between the percentage of patients who received antibiotics and those who were diagnosed with bacterial infections indicates that some patients received antibiotics unnecessarily. This unnecessary prescribing was likely driven by factors such as challenges in differentiating between COVID-19 pneumonia and bacterial pneumonia, concerns that patients might have bacterial co-infections, and limited understanding and experience in managing COVID-19 patients during the early phases of the pandemic."

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According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), antibiotic resistance happens when germs such as bacteria and fungi develop the ability to defeat the drugs designed to kill them. The agency says infections caused by antibiotic-resistant germs are difficult — and sometimes impossible —  to treat.

The growing global threat of antibiotics resistance is worrisome, with a 2019 United Nations report estimating that globally, 10 million people may lose their lives by 2050 due to infections resistant to antibiotics.  

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"Ultimately, what we’re really concerned about is what the data could mean about the long-term fight against antibiotic resistance," David Hyun, project director for Pew Charitable Trusts’ antibiotic resistance project, told Reuters.

"The use of antibiotics during this pandemic has the potential to impede progress made in recent years to combat antibiotic resistance in the U.S.," the researchers concluded in the study. "New types of antibiotics are urgently needed to defeat rapidly evolving bacteria. The continued expansion of antibiotic stewardship efforts across health care settings will be needed to ensure that these critical therapies remain effective in the future."

Fox News' Lindsay Carlton contributed to this report.