Why Did Nonventilator-Associated HAP Peak During the Pandemic?

VA study of 1.5 million veterans were more likely to have comorbidities including dementia, compared with COVID-19-negative veterans


Cases of nonventilator-associated hospital-acquired pneumonia (NV-HAP) declined by 32% between 2015 and 2020. Then, of course, COVID-19 changed the trajectory and rates began to rise. After February 2020, the incidence rate rose by 25% among veterans without COVID-19—but by 108% among those who had COVID-19.

Those are findings from a study by researchers at Rocky Mountain Regional VA Medical Center, Aurora, Colorado. They studied data on 1,567,275 veterans admitted to 135 VA facilities in acute care settings between October 2015 and March 2021, with a stay of at least 48 hours.

They say, to their knowledge, this is the first published report of changes in NV-HAP risk associated with the onset of COVID-19 among all hospitalized veterans in a national health care system.

The questions for the researchers were: What drove the increase in NV-HAP rates? Was it the elevated risk among veterans with COVID-19, reduced NV-HAP prevention measures during the extreme pandemic-related stress on the system, and/or increased patient acuity among hospitalized veterans?

They concluded that the observed increase in NV-HAP risk among all patients during the COVID-19 pandemic is “likely multifactorial.” The stresses on clinical workload may have hampered fundamental preventive nursing care, such as early mobility programs, consistent oral care, and aspiration precautions. The researchers also cite barriers including wearing personal protective equipment, which affected communication and the ability to get needed supplies to the bedside without cross-contamination.

Among patients with COVID-19 infections, the greater NV-HAP risk could be due to changes in the lower respiratory tract microbiome, disruption of the immune response, and synergism seen with COVID-19 infection. Moreover, they note, placing patients in a prone position to improve oxygenation might have raised the risk of NV-HAP.

The hospitalized veterans in the study also had a high burden of clinical comorbidities. Those with COVID-19 were more likely to have documented diagnosis of dementia in the previous year, compared with COVID-19-negative veterans or those hospitalized before the pandemic began. The researchers point out that dementia increased the risk of microaspiration, which can lead to secondary bacterial pneumonia.

In addition to reinforcing prevention efforts, the researchers suggest that NV-HAP monitoring via automated electronic surveillance could “serve as a cornerstone of a strong infection prevention program.” A system like that, installed before the pandemic, they say, might have identified the NV-HAP risk sooner.

Most importantly, they add, strategies to reduce NV-HAP risk “should be designed with resilience to significant system stress such as the COVID-19 pandemic.”

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