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Antibiotic Use Ran High In Early Days Of COVID-19, Despite Viral Cause


Some scientists are concerned the COVID-19 pandemic could also contribute to another significant health problem - the overuse of antibiotics, which will erode their power to cure disease. Several studies show antibiotics were heavily used, especially during the early days of COVID, even though these drugs are not effective against viruses. NPR science correspondent Richard Harris reports.

RICHARD HARRIS, BYLINE: Infectious disease specialists have been watching with alarm as antibiotics lose their punch. Tens of thousands of people in the United States die every year from dangerous drug-resistant infections. But doctors, of course, faced another urgent threat last year - COVID-19. And Dr. Susan Swindells at the University of Nebraska Medical Center says they often reached for antibiotics.

SUSAN SWINDELLS: You know, you have a patient in front of you with this potentially lethal illness. And they have a fever and a cough, and they have difficulty breathing. And so the overwhelming desire is to just do whatever you can.

HARRIS: Some patients got treated just in case they actually had bacterial pneumonia not COVID. Other times, doctors figured patients might have both COVID and a bacterial infection. That's fairly common with the flu. Rachel Zetts at The Pew Charitable Trusts co-authored a new study that documented this trend in a group of about 5,000 patients, chiefly in the Midwest.

RACHEL ZETTS: There is high levels of antibiotic prescribing occurring within this population, particularly when compared to what we suspect the levels of bacterial infections is.

HARRIS: More than half of the people included in their study got antibiotics, even though most of them did not have bacterial infections. Her co-author, Dr. David Hyun, says people usually got the antibiotics right away, before doctors had time to run tests to rule out bacterial infections.

DAVID HYUN: It's not inherently a bad practice. It's a necessary tool for providers to treat patients with suspected bacterial infections when they hit the doors of the hospital.

HARRIS: Immediate treatment can save the life of someone with sepsis, for example. But as the pandemic evolved, it became increasingly clear that this wasn't helping most COVID patients. Doctors usually discontinued therapy within a few days once they realized their patients wouldn't benefit. But still, this practice contributes to overuse of antibiotics and can gradually erode their potency. Hyun says hospitals had, in recent years, been compelled to adopt guidelines to rein in inappropriate antibiotic use.

HYUN: What we're concerned about is that those progresses that we've seen in the last few years could reverse.

HARRIS: Now, these findings mostly apply to medical practice in the first six months of the pandemic. Since then, doctors have had effective drugs to reach for and have learned that their patients rarely get secondary bacterial infections. Dr. Swindells says in her hospital, that's reduced the impulse to reach for antibiotics.

SWINDELLS: It's still going on to a certain extent but improved.

HARRIS: Researchers at Pew are eager to see results from follow-up studies.

Richard Harris, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF AYDIO'S "AURORA") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Award-winning journalist Richard Harris has reported on a wide range of topics in science, medicine and the environment since he joined NPR in 1986. In early 2014, his focus shifted from an emphasis on climate change and the environment to biomedical research.