Drug-resistant germs, including Candida auris, prey on severely ill patients in skilled nursing facilities, a problem sometimes amplified by poor care and low staffing.
Maria Davila lay mute in a nursing home bed, an anguished expression fixed to her face, as her husband stroked her withered hand. Ms. Davila, 65, suffers from a long list of ailments — respiratory failure, kidney disease, high blood pressure, an irregular heartbeat — and is kept alive by a gently beeping ventilator and a feeding tube.
Doctors recently added another diagnosis to her medical chart: Candida auris, a highly contagious, drug-resistant fungus that has infected nearly 800 people since it arrived in the United States four years ago, with half of patients dying within 90 days.
At least 38 other patients at Ms. Davila’s nursing home, Palm Gardens Center for Nursing and Rehabilitation in Brooklyn, have been infected with or carry C. auris, a germ so virulent and hard to eradicate that some facilities will not accept patients with it. Now, as they struggle to contain the pathogen, public health officials from cities, states and the federal government say that skilled nursing facilities like Palm Gardens are fueling its spread.
“They are the dark underbelly of drug-resistant infection,” said Dr. Tom Chiller, who heads the fungal division at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, speaking about skilled nursing facilities, particularly those with ventilated patients, but not Palm Gardens specifically.
Such nursing homes are playing a key role in the spread in New York, where 396 people are known to be infected and another 496 are carrying the germ without showing symptoms, according to public health officials. In Chicago, half of patients living on dedicated ventilator floors in the city’s skilled nursing homes are infected with or harboring C. auris on their bodies, said Dr. Allison Arwady, the acting commissioner of the city’s Department of Public Health.
Much of the blame for the rise of drug-resistant infections like C. auris, as well as efforts to combat them, has focused on the overuse of antibiotics in humans and livestock, and on hospital-acquired infections. But public health experts say that nursing facilities, and long-term hospitals, are a dangerously weak link in the health care system, often understaffed and ill-equipped to enforce rigorous infection control, yet continuously cycling infected patients, or those who carry the germ, into hospitals and back again.
They are caldrons that are constantly seeding and reseeding hospitals with increasingly dangerous bacteria,” said Betsy McCaughey, a former lieutenant governor of New York who leads the nonprofit Committee to Reduce Infection Deaths. “You’ll never protect hospital patients until the nursing homes are forced to clean up.”
[Read our other stories in our series on drug resistance, Deadly Germs, Lost Cures.]
The story is far bigger than one nursing home or one germ. Drug-resistant germs of all types thrive in such settings where severely ill and ventilated patients like Ms. Davila are prone to infection and often take multiple antibiotics, which can spur drug resistance. Resistant germs can then move from bed to bed, or from patient to family or staff, and then to hospitals and the public because of lax hygiene and poor staffing.
These issues have also vexed long-term, acute-care hospitals, where patients typically stay for a month or less before going to a skilled nursing home or a different facility.
A recent inquiry by the New York State Department of Health found that some long-term hospitals grappling with C. auris were failing to take basic measures, such as using disposable gowns and latex gloves, or to post warning signs outside the rooms of infected patients. At one unnamed facility, it said, “hand sanitizers were completely absent.”
Officials at the 240-bed Palm Gardens did not respond to repeated requests for comment. Over the past year, the number of patients who were infected with or were carrying C. auris there grew to 38 from six, according to a nurse there and public health officials. The tally has now fallen into the high 20s after some patients died or moved elsewhere.
The New York health department issued a statement in response to queries from The New York Times: “The Department of Health has made controlling the spread of C. auris a high priority and has conducted extensive training and education on infection control policies and procedures for Palm Gardens and other nursing home providers throughout this region. The health and well being of nursing home residents is our primary concern and we take complaints regarding quality of care very seriously.”
Scientific research on nursing homes and drug resistance is sparse, but some recent studies offer evidence of the problem. A study published in June in the Journal of Clinical Infectious Diseases found that patients and residents in long-term care settings have alarmingly high rates of drug-resistant colonization, which means they carry the germs on their skin or in their bodies, usually without knowing it, and can pass them invisibly to staff members, relatives or other patients. Elderly or severely ill people with weakened immune systems who carry the germ are at high risk of becoming infected. (Health officials in New York state said 14 percent of those now infected started out carrying it and then developed symptoms).
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