Each day a patient stays in the hospital, the risk of getting a secondary infection goes up by 1.3 percent. With COVID-19 patients, the average stay in the intensive care unit is about two weeks. Others with milder cases of COVID recover in three or four days.
"Being in the ICU is definitely a risk factor for this," said Peter Jorth, a pathologist with Cedars-Sinai Medical Center.
A precaution that ICU doctors take to avoid any potential infections: giving antibiotics to fight the bacteria that causes them.
But about 70% of hospitalized COVID patients are getting antibiotics, even though antibiotics don’t help cure the coronavirus. On average, only 10% to 15% of COVID-19 patients get secondary infections.
"So that means a lot of people are receiving antibiotic treatment when they probably don't need it. And it's something we need to really be cognizant of and worried about as we move forward. We don't want to drive up the prevalence of this resistance," Jorth said.
Corrie Detweiler at the University of Colorado is looking for ways to treat patients who become resistant to antibiotics.
"If you have a patient who has an infection and the microbe that's causing the infection is resistant to clinical antibiotics, you might be able to still treat them if you can treat with a clinical antibiotic plus one of our compounds. Because what our compounds do is make bacteria more sensitive to those antibiotics," she said.
It’s tedious work — like looking for a needle in a haystack. So far she’s screened more than 14,000 molecules. Her team has zeroed in on three with strong potential.
It’s a long game, too. Detweiler says it will likely be years before any molecules she discovers get through clinical trials and are made into a drug someone would take.
But the work is needed. It’s projected those antibiotic-resistant, bacteria-associated deaths could hit 10 million people annually by 2050.