Some Personal Thoughts on Scientific Meetings in a Time of COVID

Last week, I attended the ASM Microbe meeting held in D.C. Since I could walk or take the Metro there, I felt very safe–arguably, the safest public gathering I’ve attended since the pandemic. Mask compliance was extraordinarily high (>99%), and most attendees were wearing surgical masks or better–about fifteen percent seemed to be wearing N95s, and around fifty percent KN95 masks. Add to that, large, high ceiling rooms with a lot of ventilation, and it was very safe. Finally, attendees were required to have three or more vaccinations, and this was verified for entry.

The real concern I have is traveling to and from meetings, as well as dining. Since this was a local meeting, I could ‘control’ my travel exposure (it’s about 1.5 miles from my home), and obviously I can eat at home too. That said, some conferences seem to be far more lax (boldface mine):

During the second week in May, the Society for Academic Emergency Medicine (SAEM), a large medical organization, held its annual meeting in person in New Orleans after canceling the event in 2020 and holding it virtually in 2021. The meeting brought together emergency physicians, residents, fellows, medical students, clinical researchers, and corporate exhibitors from across the U.S. at a time when the country was enduring yet another Covid-19 surge, this time from the Omicron BA.12.1 subvariant…

With cases and hospitalizations rising in many parts of the country, including New Orleans, and a community vaccination rate of around 50% for the host city, attending a large, multi-day, indoor meeting with after-hours socializing in the community posed numerous safety risks. In fact, a computing conference held in New Orleans the prior week was under scrutiny as a high transmission event. Yet the SAEM’s Covid policy was not modified to reflect contemporaneous public health data. Nor did the organizers implement a vaccine verification system, require boosters, or incorporate a Covid-19 testing strategy. Masks were “welcome” but optional. No information was provided about ventilation and there were no efforts to minimize indoor crowding. No standards were suggested about minimizing spread in social gatherings

The week after the conference, news of Covid-19 cases began circulating among our colleagues. Some shared stories of becoming ill, others described how they were pulled in to cover the shifts of others who were struck by Covid.

To come up with a back-of-the-envelope estimate, we reached out informally to 15 emergency medicine programs across the country to see how many of their attending physicians, fellows, residents, and research staff attended the conference and how many cases were thought to have resulted from the conference. Among the 11 programs that responded, the number of attendees ranged from five to more than 50, and Covid-19 case rates ranged from 18% to 67%. While there are many caveats to the data (it’s a nonrandom, convenience sample, the data are self-reported estimates), they suggest that this single academic event was responsible for many hundreds of cases

Do these cases matter? We believe they do, as there is the continued risk of severe disease, long Covid, and significant impact on training and careers, increased burden on already-strained health systems, and the exposure of untold numbers of other travelers in planes that no longer have mask-wearing rules, family members, patients, and others, some with increased vulnerability to severe disease due to underlying illnesses.

But The Pandemic Is Over! (Unless, of course, you’re DHHS Secretary Becerra, who has managed to contract COVID twice in one month).

Until we get a handle on long COVID or better vaccines, from my perspective, many conferences are just too risky–if emergency medicine conferences won’t take precautions, then we’re really screwed.

Anyway, kudos to ASM and my fellow attendees for displaying common sense and courtesy.

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