Sask. stops some screening for superbugs amidst coronavirus pandemic preparation

The Saskatchewan Health Authority is halting some screening for two antibiotic-resistant bacteria that commonly occur in hospital settings, in order to free up resources to handle the COVID-19 pandemic.

Screening and isolation for superbugs VRE and MRSA is suspended except for high-risk patients

The Saskatchewan Health Authority says it's confident the risk of a superbug outbreak in the province is 'very low,' even as it suspends some screening during the COVID-19 pandemic. (Trevor Bothorel/Radio-Canada)

The Saskatchewan Health Authority is halting some screening for two antibiotic-resistant bacteria that commonly occur in hospital settings, in order to free up resources to handle the COVID-19 pandemic.

Earlier this week, a memo distributed to Saskatchewan Health Authority staff and obtained by CBC advised staff that screening and isolation will be suspended immediately at long-term care and acute facilities for methicillin-resistant staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) and vancomycin-resistant enterococci (VRE).

However, screening and isolation will continue for high-risk patients, such as those in intensive care units, transplants and oncology.

MRSA and VRE, in addition to being antibiotic-resistant, can cause an infection that becomes difficult to treat if contracted in a wound or cut.

Dr. Raywat Deonandan, a global-health epidemiologist and an associate professor at the University of Ottawa, said the reason the health authority has suspended testing is obvious to him.

"I understand entirely why they're doing it — it's absolutely to free up resources in preparation for the big wave of COVID-19 cases," he said. "For that reason, I think it probably is the right thing to do — it's triage."

The health-care system has to deal with the worst cases first, "and the worst case is the coming COVID wave of cases," he said.

"Is it concerning? Yes, it's concerning, because that means potential MRSA outbreaks may then be seen in a variety of institutions coming up. They can be treated for the most part." 

The Saskatchewan Health Authority has suspended isolation and screening for Methicillin-resistant staphylococcus aureus, or MRSA, a bacteria that's often resistant to many antibiotics, as well as VRE, another antibiotic-resistant bacteria. (CBC)

Despite the fact isolation and screening has been suspended, those who have evidence of a clinical infection of MRSA or VRE should still be treated as per existing local protocols, the health authority says.

That means medical staff would be required to use personal protective equipment like gloves and gowns when interacting with a patient who has contracted the bacteria, or is working in areas they've come in contact with.

This comes, however, at a time when concerns have been raised about the availability of protective equipment for medical staff in the province because of COVID-19.

A statement from the Saskatchewan Health Authority said it's confident the risk of a superbug outbreak is slim.

"The decision to temporarily suspend the screening and additional precautions for those colonized with MRSA and VRE in our acute and long-term care facilities is part of our phased implementation of the Infection Prevention and Control Pandemic Operational Plan," the health authority said in a statement.

"This is done in an effort to allocate all necessary resources to our areas of highest risk."

The health authority says if staff consistently follows routine practices around hand hygiene and point-of-care risk assessments, the risk of antimicrobial-resistant organism transmission from those who are infected to other patients is "very low."

"We are confident that in these times of heightened awareness and training in proper infection prevention and control practices, our patients and residents will not be placed at a greater risk of infection," the SHA said in the statement. 

Earlier this week, CBC reported on an internal document from the Saskatchewan Health Authority that says even using conservative assumptions, "COVID-19 will almost certainly overwhelm" the province's health system.

However, Deonandan says the suspension of the tests should not be taken as a sign the system is starting to crack under pressure. 

"The overwhelmingness comes when the number of ICU beds is exceeded, so the idea is to keep the number of new cases as low as possible."

As of Thursday afternoon, there were 95 COVID-19 cases in Saskatchewan.