Introduction by Croakey: At least 181 people were infected with the coronavirus after attending a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) conference at an Atlanta hotel in April, according to The Washington Post.
About 1,800 people attended the conference, the first in-person gathering of the CDC’s Epidemic Intelligence Service in four years. About 70 percent of participants who then responded to a CDC survey said they did not wear masks at the event.
In the article below, Professor Deborah Lupton, a strong public advocate for improving COVID prevention efforts, makes six suggestions for improving the safety of conferences and other such events.
Deborah Lupton writes:
We are in our fourth year of the COVID-19 pandemic, and at the same time as governments and health agencies are wanting to promote the idea that the emergency phase is over and we should all learn to ‘live with COVID’, many people are still getting infected or reinfected.
Faculty and students are attending academic conferences and coming back with new COVID. This has the potential to severely affect their health into the future, as well as posing a risk to the people back home with whom they come into contact.
Conference organisers need to ensure better COVID safe conditions to protect attendees’ health. Here are some guidelines for what should be done.
1. Offer online options to participate in the conference.
Not only will this prevent the spread of COVID through reducing exposure due to travel and conference mingling, it also provides better accessibility for people who are ill or disabled, have caring responsibilities, do not have ready access to conference funding or live in countries where it is difficult to obtain visas to travel abroad. Online options also mitigate against the significant carbon emissions and pollution caused by air travel.
2. Ask all attendees not to attend the conference under any circumstances if they, or any of their household members, have any infectious illness symptoms of any kind.
Ensure that they know that any fees charged for the conference are fully refundable in these circumstances so that people are not tempted to participate because they feel they will have wasted money.
3. Have rapid COVID tests available free at the venue, and encourage participants to regularly test themselves while at the conference and in the days after the conference.
4. Only use venues where there are effective systems in place to ensure clean indoor air.
Undertake a risk assessment for airborne infection before you book and confirm the venue. Check the quality and effectiveness of all mechanical ventilation systems (HVAC) at the venue for the rate of fresh air delivery and exchange. Determine whether air purifiers or other air cleaning technologies are in place or can be hired for the event.
Check if there are windows in the conference rooms that can be opened to allow for fresh air to enter. Consider making sure all doors to the venue and internal rooms can be left open to allow fresh air to enter. Use an air quality monitor (Aranet4 or similar) to check the air quality in the venue spaces periodically throughout the conference, and take steps to improve it if there is a problem.
In short, do everything you can to ensure that the venue has clean air systems in place to reduce the risk of airborne viral transmission. See here for CDC’s guidelines on ventilation in buildings.
5. Preferably, the wearing of respirator masks (N95 or better) should be mandated for all attendees.
This will deal with the peer pressure that often stops people from donning a respirator (“I don’t want to look different”, “No-one else is wearing a mask, why should I?”). If this is not possible, respirator mask wearing should be strongly recommended, and free N95s should be made available at the venue for every attendee. Conference organisers should model wearing N95s at all times.
6. All refreshments should be made available in an outside space only.
• Further resources and information here from The COVID-19 Safety Pledge (UK) website.
Deborah Lupton is SHARP Professor in the Faculty of Arts & Social Sciences, University of New South Wales. She is a sociologist whose work is often interdisciplinary, and she has a Master of Public Health and a doctorate from the University of Sydney. She writes about the sociocultural dimensions of medicine and public health, risk, the body,and digital media and is the author of 18 books.
This article was first published at the author’s blog, This Sociological Life.
See Croakey’s archive of articles on prevention