Going to Medical Conferences Has Similar COVID Risk to Staying Home: Study

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As COVID rates continue to decline globally and across the United States, many professional healthcare associations are gradually resuming in-person meetings. This is despite the increasing number of online meetings and the shift in dynamics from physical sessions to virtual conferences during COVID lockdown restrictions.

Although few studies have found that COVID case numbers are high after general mass meetings, information on viral transmission rates after such in-person meetings are often limited, unpublished, and unreliable — at best.

A study published September 7 in JAMA Network Open compared COVID rates among in-person attendees and virtual attendees of the Academic Surgical Congress — the largest surgical society meetings in the United States. The conference, which was held in Orlando, Florida, on February 1, shortly after the peak of the Omicron wave, gave participants the option of in-person or virtual attendance.

“This study is the first to assess COVID-19 rates after a large in-person meeting of healthcare workers,” Callisia Clarke, MD, a surgical oncologist at the Medical College of Wisconsin and the study’s lead author, told Medscape Medical News. “There have been anecdotal reports of transmission at other meetings but no large-scale evaluations of risk of transmission with attendance at a medical conference.”

Clarke’s team recruited registrants for a survey assessment of COVID testing and symptoms 7 days after the meeting. The researchers collated data from anonymous surveys and evaluated differences in positivity rates between virtual and in-person attendees.

During the meeting, steps to prevent COVID transmission included encouraging self-testing, mandatory vaccination and masking, and the serving of food and beverages outdoors.

Concerning the efficacy of COVID-specific measures, “It is difficult to prove that the measures were effective at reducing transmission because we don’t know what the rates would have been if the measures were not in place,” said Clarke. “However, the data is suggestive that the evidenced-based preventative measures implemented by the meeting organizers were effective at keeping transmission rates low, and in-person attendance at the conference did not increase the risk of contracting COVID.”

Conferences Should Be Flexible, Take Needed Steps

Of 1617 meeting participants, 681 (42.1%) responded to the survey. These included 226 attending physicians (33.2%), 234 trainees (34.3%), and 187 students (27.4%). Among respondents, 135 (19.8%) attended virtually, and 546 (80.2%) attended in person.

All in-person participants were fully vaccinated, and 500 (91.6%) had received a booster shot. Six respondents (4.4%) attended the meeting virtually because they tested positive for COVID prior to the conference.

It is notable that differences in positivity rates were insignificant, because only 10 in-person (1.8%) and two virtual (1.5%) attendees tested positive for COVID after the meeting. All COVID-positive attendees had received a booster. This figure indicates that transmission rates among participants were low, and there was no significant difference in rates of COVID positivity between in-person and virtual attendees.

According to the study authors, 86 (69.3%) attendees indicated that the most common reason for testing was, “I wished to ensure that I had not contracted COVID.” Seven of 10 COVID-positive attendees missed work, and there were no hospitalizations.

As more healthcare professional associations are resuming in-person meetings, Clarke advises flexibility in planning and adapting evidence-based preventive strategies to address current transmission patterns, data, and recommendations.

“As the pandemic evolves and new variants arise, safety measures must be continually reevaluated and modified to reduce the risk of exposure,” she said. “It is also important that medical societies and other organizations be forthcoming in sharing their experiences with other groups to help improve measures for all conferences so that they may be held as safely as possible.”

JAMA Netw Open. Published online September 7, 2022. Full text

Oladimeji Ewumi is a freelance writer based in Lagos, Nigeria, specializing in healthcare, life sciences, and medical artificial intelligence.

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