JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – U.S. cases of a dangerous fungus tripled over just three years, and more than half of states have now reported it, according to a new study.
The COVID-19 pandemic likely drove part of the increase, researchers at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention wrote in the paper published Monday by Annals of Internal Medicine. Hospital workers were strained by coronavirus patients, and that likely shifted their focus away from disinfecting some other kinds of germs, they said.
The fungus, Candida auris, is a form of yeast that is usually not harmful to healthy people but can be a deadly risk to fragile hospital and nursing home patients.
“These patients are already very sick. They are already hospitalized or in a health care setting — be it nursing homes or acute care facilities,” said Dr. Sirishi Talari, a family medicine physician with HCA Florida Memorial Hospital.
It spreads easily and can infect wounds, ears and the bloodstream. The CDC says it can be spread from person to person or from interactions with contaminated surfaces. Symptoms include having a fever or chills.
Some strains are so-called superbugs that are resistant to all three classes of antibiotic drugs used to treat fungal infections.
“We’re talking about Candida auris, which is a fungal infection. The caveat is it’s a rare disease still in the United States that seems to be, that it may be spread more than what we would like to be,” Talari said.
Talari says you can have it without having symptoms and still spread it. She says the best way to prevent getting infected is to be proactive.
“Which can be done by handwashing, consistently, cleaning the environment, devices and anything that has been in contact with that patient or person,” Talari said.
If you like using hand sanitizer, Talari says this will not work. She says to wash your hands and run them under the water for at least 20 seconds.
The fungus was first identified in Japan in 2009 and has been seen in more and more countries. The first U.S. case occurred in 2013, but it was not reported until 2016. That year, U.S. health officials reported 53 cases.
The new study found cases have continued to shoot up, rising to 476 in 2019, to 756 in 2020, and then to 1,471 in 2021. Doctors have also detected the fungus on the skin of thousands of other patients, making them a transmission risk to others.
Many of the first U.S. cases were infections that had been imported from abroad, but now most infections are spread within the U.S., the authors noted.
According to the CDC, close to 350 cases were reported last year in Florida, and those numbers are expected to grow.