Georgia trails neighboring states on infection control

Health inspectors across Georgia swoop into every restaurant kitchen to demand cleanliness. They dip test strips into public pools to make sure the water is safe and monitor septic tanks for contamination of the environment.

But one gigantic threat to public health — hospital-acquired infections — has escaped vigorous scrutiny by the state’s top health officials until now.

In January, Georgia’s hospitals were required for the first time to start reporting their cases of common but potentially deadly infections to the state Department of Public Health. Many states have required such reports for years and even share them with the public. Some states also have teams of workers devoted to cleaning up hospitals with high infection rates while also auditing hospitals’ reports to make sure nobody is fudging the numbers.

You don’t have to look far to see how rudimentary Georgia’s program is. Tennessee’s effort to control hospital infections employs 10 people; Georgia’s has one. Alabama requires public reporting of hospital infections and issues an annual report. In Georgia, the state does not permit the public to see the data it is collecting.

Until now, Georgia had no hospital-specific data on these infections. With little understanding of the extent of the problem, the state was powerless to solve it. But as of January, hospitals are sharing the same data with the state that they must now report to the federal government.

“Our vision in Georgia is to be able to eliminate preventable HAIs,” said Dr. Cherie Drenzek, Georgia’s top epidemiologist. An HAI is a healthcare-associated infection. “We have such a tremendous opportunity because they really are preventable.”

As part of its robust HAI program, Tennessee has required hospitals to report infection rates to the state health department since 2008, and the state produces a thick hospital-specific report every year for the public.

The federal government has set specific goals for big reductions in these infections and Georgia is expected to help its hospitals get there. But with only one employee devoted solely to this issue, the big question is resources.

Georgia’s public health officials have ambitious plans. They want to identify facilities that need to improve and help them get there. They want to push for more appropriate use of antibiotics, a key part of combating some infections. They want to keep the state’s doctors informed of the latest threats. They also want the state to start checking the data for accuracy.

“We consider data accuracy and data validation to be one of our primary roles,” Drenzek said.

Drenzek acknowledges that Georgia’s efforts will be challenged by its limited resources. She said public health is trying to join with institutions and experts. The department already has an expert advisory committee.

“We cannot do it alone,” Drenzek said. “We recognize that.”