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An outbreak of Candida auris fungus in some medical facilities is worrying health officials. Getty Images
  • Concerns are being raised about a drug-resistant fungal “superbug” that has spread in healthcare facilities in Texas and Washington, D.C.
  • Experts say the Candida auris fungus is highly contagious and can cause serious illness, especially in people already in a weakened condition.
  • The strain first appeared in Japan in 2009 and has been in the United States since 2013.

As if the latest COVID-19 case surge isn’t enough to worry about, there’s a new fungal “superbug” making the rounds in some already overburdened medical facilities.

Hospitals and care facilities in some states are now seeing outbreaks of Candida auris fungus, a highly transmissible yeast that can cause invasive infections, including in the bloodstream.

In 2017, officials at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) labeled this strain a “global emerging threat.”

In outbreaks in Texas and Washington D.C., the infection appears to be spread through person-to-person contact in healthcare facilities, which wasn’t typically the case in 2017, making the latest clusters even more dangerous.

The strain is also resistant to multiple antifungal drugs, making it difficult to treat, according to Oliver Schacht, PhD, the CEO of Maryland-based diagnostics and biotech company OpGen.

“Some strains are resistant to all three available classes of antifungals: polyenes, triazoles, and echinocandins,” Schacht told Healthline. “In fact, C. auris is now a global health threat as an emerging multidrug-resistant yeast that causes severe illness in hospitalized patients.”

The bug can be transmitted through contact with contaminated surfaces or equipment as well as person-to-person contact, Schacht said.

“Patients who have a long stay in an intensive care unit, have serious medical conditions, and who have previously received antibiotics or antifungal medications tend to be at the highest risk of infection,” Schacht added.

CDC officials state that the strain “is difficult to identify with standard laboratory methods, and it can be misidentified in labs without specific technology. Misidentification may lead to inappropriate management.”

This drug-resistant fungus first appeared in 2009 in Japan and was in the United States by 2013, according to the CDC.

Agency officials note that in 2016, the strain was “causing invasive healthcare-associated infections with high mortality.” It has since spread around the globe.

Ravi Starzl, CEO of microbiomics company BioPlx, said Candida are part of the normal microbiome of most people. They live on the skin, mouth, gut, and other areas where bacteria and yeasts reside on the body.

They become problematic when growing out of control, especially when entering the blood or organs. They can kill on their own but are even more problematic in people who are already weakened by something else, such as COVID-19.

“Hospitalized COVID patients that also have C. auris infections face a much higher risk of death,” Starzl told Healthline. “One early study found 60 percent mortality. Hard data on the susceptibility of non-hospitalized but infected COVID patients, including those fully vaccinated, is not currently available.

“Drug-resistant infections were a serious problem for hospitals before COVID,” Starzl added. “The pandemic and the increased stress on the hospital system has made it more difficult to control these dangerous yeasts and bacteria. Some of the procedures used to control and treat coronavirus patients can also spread these drug-resistant microbes.”

Dr. Brad Perkins, the chief medical officer of diagnostic developer Karius Inc. in Redwood City, California, said there was a candida auris outbreak in a COVID-19 specialty ward in Florida during the summer of 2020.

“Other opportunistic fungal infections have also gained a foothold during the COVID-19 pandemic,” Perkins told Healthline. “Aspergillosis (an infection typically targeting the lungs) has been observed in patients with severe COVID-19 in many countries, including the U.S. and the U.K. Recently, India reported over 4,300 deaths from mucormycosis, also known as black fungus, which particularly impacted patients with compromised immune systems or patients with diabetes.”

Experts say get vaccinated and continue taking precautions whenever possible.

“Continue the cadence to maintain proper precautions because C. auris now adds another dangerous and deadly factor on top of the already challenging COVID pandemic,” Schacht said. “It’s important that hospitals and healthcare personnel strictly follow infection protection and control measures, such as the proper use of gowns and gloves (and) strict protocols for visitors visiting a healthcare facility in order to prevent the spread of infection.”