COVID, duty of care, and the meeting industry

COVID duty of care

Event professionals: it’s time to talk about COVID, duty of care, and the meeting industry. Actually, we should all have been talking about this for the last couple of years, but better late than never.

We’ve known since mid-2019 that COVID-19 spreads by airborne aerosol transmission. (Which makes me wonder why the GBAC STAR™ Facility Accreditation, with its emphasis on disinfection and cleaning surfaces and neglect of adequate ventilation, is still a thing.)

As I write this, the BA.5 Omicron variant is fueling the latest surge in COVID-19 cases in the U.S. The World Health Organization (WHO) just announced that COVID cases have tripled across Europe and hospitalizations have doubled. And “as Omicron rages on, scientists have no idea what comes next“.

The reality is we are still suffering a pandemic, currently dominated by the most contagious variant of COVID-19 yet: BA.5. The worst variant to date, BA.5 is four times more resistant to messenger RNA vaccines than earlier strains of omicron and is leading to significant increases in hospitalizations and ICU admissions.

As a result, WHO’s Emergency Committee has announced that Covid-19 remains a Public Health Emergency of International Concern — its highest level of alert.

Meanwhile, the Centers For Disease Control and Prevention reports that “Nearly one in five American adults who have had COVID-19 still have Long COVID“. And a U.S. Veterans Affairs study suggests that a second infection doubles the risk for death, blood clots, and lung damage, and increases the risk of hospitalization by three times, with every COVID reinfection increasing the risk for bad outcomes.

Yet the meeting industry seems to be abrogating its traditional responsibilities to keep attendees and staff safe.

Why are superspreader events still happening?

Every month I hear of more superspreader events. Here are a few recent examples:

  1. Veteran meeting planner Dianne Davis shared details about an event she produced in January 2022. Despite taking just about every standard precaution [“72-hour PCR test on them at all times or their triple vaccination card. Temp checks twice a day. Hand sanitizer. N-95 masks provided and required to be worn anytime not actively eating or drinking. Onsite rapid tests every other day. Used a color-coded system for levels of contact comfort. Set room for social distancing.”] a third of the attendees contracted COVID. Probable culprits: (unmasked) indoor meals and socials.
  2. At the May 2022 New York City Criminal Court Judges Association three-day retreat, 30% of the attendees tested positive for Covid in the days after the event ended. The possible culprit: a karaoke session.
  3. Many attendees reported that the recent meeting industry conference IMEX Frankfurt 2022, held May 31, 2022 – Jun 2, 2022, was a superspreader event. A friend who attended tells me that he and 18 out of his 120 IMEX contacts contracted COVID there. Likely culprits: those (unmasked) indoor meals and socials will get you every time.
  4. The Society for the History of Authorship, Reading and Publishing 2022 conference, Amsterdam, 11 to 15 July 2022 from #SHARP2022:

These events are only the tip of the iceberg since it’s clear that many superspreader events go unreported. (For example, I can’t find a single public mention of the IMEX Frankfurt COVID cases.)

Duty of care

The meeting industry doesn’t provide appropriate duty of care for its own events

Besides the superspreader IMEX Frankfurt 2022 event mentioned above, MPI’s WEC San Francisco 2022 showed a lax approach to COVID duty of care. MPI didn’t require proof of vaccination or a rapid antigen test to enter the venue, Moscone West. Alameda County to the south reinstituted indoor masking requirements a few weeks before the meeting, driven by a rise in daily Covid-19 cases that exceeded the peak of last summer’s Delta wave. But San Francisco resisted following suit, and MPI decided to follow San Francisco’s relaxed protocols.

Currently, I think that best practice COVID duty of care should include proof of vaccination (at least two shots) or daily on-site testing. I haven’t heard of COVID cases tied to the event, but I can’t find any assurances that the existence of any cases would be shared with attendees post-event. [Attendees may have been protected to some degree because the Moscone Center HVAC system uses MERV 13 filtration and the big receptions were held outdoors.]

MPI’s approach for WEC seems at odds with that espoused by their principal health and safety advisor: InHouse Physicians. In a July 6 2022 post on the MPI blog, Dr. Jonathan Spero, the CEO of InHouse Physicians says:

“We have not moved from the pandemic to the endemic stage yet.”

“…the average mortality rate of COVID is turning out to be around 0.5%. We could easily have another pandemic with a 5% mortality rate. Imagine a tenfold increase in mortality and what it would do to the meeting industry and the entire global economy.”

“…I believe it is essential for planners who want to be successful to provide attendees with…health security measures that meet your responsibilities, and the expectations and potential concerns of your attendees.

We are failing to provide adequate COVID duty of care

Some argue that most people are unlikely to suffer serious consequences from contracting COVID-19. They are overlooking the 3% of the population in the United States—some seven million people—who are considered moderately to severely immunocompromised, making them more at risk for serious illness if they contract COVID-19, even after vaccination.

Here’s one of them:

Immunocompromised attendees, staff, and suppliers want to be at your meetings and are going to be at your meetings. Do you think it’s OK to ignore their critical needs?

If the meeting industry can’t adequately protect its own members at IMEX Frankfort, what’s the likelihood its members can or will ensure an appropriate COVID duty of care at other meetings?

I’ll conclude with a personal story. My daughter, already suffering from long covid, has to attend a 400-person business conference next week. She is worried. Although the event has vaccination requirements, no one has supplied any information about indoor air quality at the venue. She plans to take meals outdoors and skip the socials. But she’s still concerned about being exposed to people with COVID. And she has every reason to be concerned. With current infection rates in the U.S. the probability is essentially 100% that she’ll be sitting in the same room as infectious attendees.

We can and should do better than this. If we’re going to hold in-person events, we have a duty of care to follow best practices for our attendees as well as hotel staff and suppliers of services.

The meeting industry has developed a disconnect between COVID safety precautions and duty of care.

This needs to change. We know what we need to do. It’s not rocket science. Do it!

4 thoughts on “COVID, duty of care, and the meeting industry

  1. Great post Adrian, and thank you for continuing to hold the industry accountable. I would add the extending this responsibility to travel. I bet a lot of these people (knowingly infected and not knowingly) proceeded to get on several planes going all over the world, not to mention all the connections required to get to their final destination.
    I recently heard of an acquaintance who flew to Europe for a cruise (a super spreader in the best of times). She told me the majority of people on the cruise including herself and her partner were showing signs of COVID as the weeklong cruise progressed. No one was willing to officially say anything for fear of getting kicked off the cruise. This couple said they didn’t by a test to check themselves because they were worried they’d somehow be tracked and would be unable to fly home. So they got on a plane and transferred twice before arriving home. As soon as they got home they tested themselves and as they suspected, they were both positive for COVID.
    Don’t even get me started on the attitude of “screw the rest of the world, I don’t want MY travel plans compromised.” Or the equally prevalent, “pffft…it’s just the immunocompromised people that need to worry. We healthy people will be fine.” But yeah, it’s not just the conference attendees, it’s all the people they come in contact with going to and from the meeting.

    1. Traci, you’re 100% right about the travel exposure. These days, unfortunately, it’s safe to assume that every plane flight you take has COVID infectious people on it. (Why, in my experience, many flight attendants aren’t wearing masks is a mystery to me.) And your cruise story, illustrating why it’s going to spread because passengers/crew are reluctant to report symptoms, shows just how dysfunctional systems that are supposed to keep people safe can be. A friend of mine went on a crusie with just 30 passengers plus crew a couple of months ago and came down with COVID. The boat was so small I can’t imagine how everyone on board didn’t get it.

      As I mentioned in this post-<>- I wore a respirator-quality mask the entire time on the only two (four-hour) flights I’ve made since the pandemic started. I did not get COVID, but I am still very reluctant to fly (and no way would I take a cruise) right now.

  2. You know I’ve spoken out on this from the start – from the WHO press briefings then and now. It’s neglectful of those who either are immunocompromised; have children too young for vaccinations; carers for those who may be more vulnerable.

    AND through it all, the lack of care expressed for hotel, transportation, convention center and other venue employees is deplorable. Yeah, they may mask but “we” who attend a meeting or are the meeting holder won’t require it so if we GIVE COVID to someone who depends on their job, gets no or little PTO, perhaps works multiple jobs .. so what? What happened to our partnership in the industry?

    Hearing this week from more than 5 people who got COVID after ‘dropping their guard’ – not masking at a very empty hardware store; a bridal shower where masks and tests weren’t required and it became a super-spreader; on and on.

    We don’t allow smoking at meetings, why aren’t we still requiring masks and making accommodations for people who are hard of hearing or deaf, or otherwise in need of accommodation generally and with COVID and COVID-masking?

    Livid? Still.

    1. Sometimes it feels as though no one is listening and our efforts are fruitless.

      But, Joan, I hope you know that you do make a difference. Many people listen to you. Many are influenced in ways you’ll never know. In my case, you have inspired me over the years to speak out more about important issues. You have influenced me, and I am grateful for it. And so are many in our industry.

      You fight the good fight and make good trouble. Bless you for it.

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