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.

Read the rest of this entry »

Tips on building a Corsi-Rosenthal Box for an airborne pandemic

Corsi-Rosenthal box materials

I just built a Corsi-Rosenthal Box. You might be thinking “what?” Well, it’s a simple and inexpensive DIY air filtering device that helps remove airborne viruses, wildfire pollution, pollen, dust, etc. from indoor air. Of particular note: the filters used are good enough to remove COVID-19 aerosols from contaminated air. Also, it’s incredibly easy to build and inexpensive. My Corsi-Rosenthal Box took less than an hour to make using the readily available supplies shown above. And it cost just $94 plus a dollar or two for duct tape.

That compares favorably with the $230 sleek Coway Air Purifier, shown below, that I purchased at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. Especially since the latter is rated at ~250 cubic feet per minute (CFM) while mine provides ~350 CFM.

My air filter is 40% of the price of the Coway yet provides 40% more ventilation!

To be fair, mine is larger — and uglier. Here it is!

Even though I’d never made one before the air cleaner took less than an hour to put together. If I did it again, I think I could build one in less than 30 minutes.

Materials, tools, and basic construction

Corsi-Rosenthal box materials
All the materials I used are shown above. Here’s the list:

The only tools I needed were a Swiss army knife, scissors, a pencil, and a loop of string. (Oh, and a thumbtack.)

Because there are already good resources available for choosing components and building a Corsi-Rosenthal Box, I’m not going to replicate them here. Instead, here’s what I found most helpful:

These resources cover everything you need to know to build inexpensive and effective air cleaners, plus a little interesting history of how they came to be.

Tips on building a Corsi-Rosenthal Box

While building my box I learned some little details that aren’t covered in the core resources above. None of them are vital, but they might help you. Here they are:

Making the box as square as possible

Corsi-Rosenthal box taped filters

How should the four filters be duct-taped together? See the picture above, which shows the seam arrangement I used to create a square shape. I found that 2″ duct tape worked well for the entire project.

You probably don’t need extra cardboard!

I purchased my fan and filters online, and both got shipped in boxes that are the perfect size to provide the cardboard you need. I used the Lasco fan box for the box base (see below), as well as four pieces needed to seal the corners of the fan mounting and the fan shroud (see next two sections). Very little cardboard was left!

Corsi-Rosenthal box bottom cardboard

Note that I sealed the bottom of the box along the filter edges and added four additional short strips of duct tape at each corner to reinforce the construction.

Creating four cardboard corner arcs to seal the fan mounting and the fan shroud

Here’s how I marked up the other side of the Lasco fan box to create four corner arcs that sealed the fan mounting and the fan shroud (see next section).

I placed the fan in the center of the cardboard and drew around its edge, creating the outside pencil line as shown below.

After removing the fan, I used a tape measure to find the center of the cardboard and inserted a thumbtack. Then I made a loop of string to draw a circle to cut out for the air exhaust portion of the fan shroud. (Look at the earlier photo of my finished unit to see what the fan shroud looks like.) The right length for the loop will depend on the fan you use. Here are the optimum fan shroud openings (with the 3M Filtrete 1900 filters I used) for two common fans:

So for my Lasco fan, I used a 15″ loop of string to draw a central circle with a 7.5″ radius.

After marking the cardboard I cut the four fan seal corner arcs from the cardboard corners with my Swiss Army knife and duct-taped them in position as shown below.

I then cut out the fan shroud.

Final assembly

All that remains at this point is to place the fan on the top of the box and seal it to the filter edges and the corner cardboard arcs with duct tape. Finally, tape the edges of the fan shroud to the fan.

You’re done! Here, again, is the finished unit.

This Corsi-Rosenthal Box is quiet, even on maximum fan speed, and noticeably more powerful than my commercial Coway unit. I live in a very airtight home — my CO₂ meter shows significantly higher readings when just the two of us are there. So I am happy to have this second unit available when folks visit. Building it was fun and easy. Recommended!

 

The meeting industry new normal – Part 3

meeting industry normalThe old meeting industry normal is long over, and many event professionals are still hoping and waiting for a new normal.

In October 2020 I wrote two posts [1, 2] about what a meeting industry new normal might look like. As I write, two years have passed since the COVID-19 pandemic devastated the world and the event industry. It’s time to take another look. How have my predictions held up? And what does the future hold?

Looking back

Six months into the pandemic, I wrote that three fundamental things had to happen for everything to go as well as possible in the global fight against the coronavirus.

1. “If we’re really lucky, we’ll have a safe, inexpensive, effective vaccine sometime before the end of 2021.”

Well, we were lucky. The hard work of a large number of scientists, years of research on related coronaviruses, plus a paradigm shift in vaccine development led to the rollout of effective vaccines at the start of 2021. Several of these vaccines remain effective against the coronavirus variants that have appeared since the start of the pandemic.

2. “The world mobilizes to provide the vaccine rapidly to a large proportion of the global population.”

This has not happened. As I write this, only 63% of the world population has received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, and we know that multiple doses are needed to provide adequate protection for most people. In addition, only 12% of people in low-income countries have received at least one dose.

3. “We overcome conspiracy-theory induced fear of vaccination.”

This has also not happened. “Recent growth in conspiracy theory beliefs, particularly those centered on potential vaccine harm, pose a substantial threat to the large-scale uptake of COVID-19 vaccines, and thus the achievement of herd immunity to COVID-19.” Currently, even though vaccination is free and has been readily available for a year in the U.S., only 65% of the population is fully vaccinated, and herd immunity is still a distant target. Vaccine hesitancy, fueled by substantial misinformation on social media and some media channels, remains a significant barrier to taming the ravages of COVID-19.

Conclusions

Even if no further variants appear, the above factors mean that COVID-19 is here to stay for the indefinite future. As I write, for example, South Korea is experiencing a massive surge, the largest of the entire pandemic. The dominant COVID-19 variants are so contagious that it’s currently impossible to prevent further spread and outbreaks until most of the world population is adequately vaccinated or builds up enough (weaker) immunity through repeated infections.

We may eventually tame the pandemic by developing effective and inexpensive antivirals and making them widely available to those contracting COVID-19. However, the virus is likely to develop resistance to such drugs, which are currently in short supply and expensive, so continued R&D will be needed.

Finally, it’s important to remember that we still do not understand the health impact of long covid. The American Medical Association estimates that “anywhere from 15% to 80% of patients might experience long COVID after recovering—even if they weren’t very sick in the first place”. I have friends and family that are still suffering serious effects of long covid—you probably have too. Now vaccines and better treatments have reduced the risk of dying from COVID-19. But that doesn’t mean we can dismiss its significant long-term health consequences going forward.

Holding in-person meetings: what do we now know?

Here’s a quick overview of what I see as the relative risks involved in attending in-person meetings at this point. Two important caveats are that I’m assuming travelers:

  1. Are fully vaccinated; and
  2. Use good quality masks when in public enclosed spaces.

Risks of serious illness for the unvaccinated are at least an order of magnitude higher. See below for situations when masks cannot be worn.

Travel

Airline travel seems reasonably safe these days. Airlines claim “cabin air is refreshed 20-30 times an hour.” If correct, this is more than adequate. The main exposure risks occur during boarding and deplaning when in-flight airplane ventilation systems are not operating. However, I would avoid long plane flights for now if possible, as it’s somewhat risky to unmask to eat or drink on a plane.

Train travel has a similar risk exposure. Amtrak says that its “trains are equipped with onboard filtration systems with a fresh air exchange rate every 4-5 minutes”. Again, if accurate, this is more than adequate.

Public transportation can involve inadequate ventilation and close contact with others. Under these circumstances, wearing high-quality masks is essential.

If attendees and staff follow precautions, traveling to and from meetings is not as high-risk as the following activities.

Accommodations

As described below, very few hotels (and venues) seem to have implemented ASHRAE’S building readiness standards for air quality in their properties. Sleeping in a hotel room when one can’t wear a mask has an unknown and potentially high risk for COVID-19 infection unless you can obtain fresh air by opening windows. Consequently, I currently prefer to stay in self-contained Airbnb properties. There, I can be confident that air from an unknown source won’t contaminate indoor air.

Dining and socializing

Currently, eating and drinking indoors is quite risky unless the location has upgraded its HVAC systems to adequately filter COVID, the space has very high ceilings, or copious fresh outdoor air is available from open windows.

Understandably, people want to connect at in-person meetings. We are drawn to do this during meals and socials where masks cannot be or are not worn. Which can lead to consequences like this:

“…now myself and at least 25% of our participants are sick with COVID. I am hearing from someone else every day…All the precautions in the world don’t really matter if you abandon them when people eat and drink. We all know this yet we are all still doing it for the most part.
—Quote from a meeting planner’s January 2022 conference report

I’ve heard reports of this natural but hazardous behavior at many conferences held over the last couple of years. Given the ease of transmission of dominant COVID-19 variants, the best way to minimize such risks is to hold meals and socials outdoors. Obviously, this is not always practical.

Conclusions

Currently, hardly any in-person events report post-event attendee and staff COVID cases. In many cases, there is no apparent effort made to perform post-event case tracking.

The meeting industry is still wrestling with whether events have an obligation to report COVID-19 cases to the general public. So we don’t know the true infectious impact of meeting in person, though it’s reasonable to assume that more infections occur than are reported.

Consequently, while we all desire in-person meetings, I think it’s incumbent on every event stakeholder to consider the effect of their event on the health of participants and staff, and determine whether, in good conscience, the meeting should best take place in-person or online.

Looking forward: What the meeting industry still needs to do

Two years after COVID-19 started, we know what to do to keep in-person meetings safe. Currently, it’s still critical that vaccination and masking requirements are in place for events to occur safely. Yet the meeting and hospitality industries still have their heads in the sand in one crucial safety area.

Upgrade air quality in venues and accommodations

As we start thinking about returning to in-person events, it’s crucial to check that venues are upgrading their HVAC systems to handle potentially virus-infused air. This does not appear to be happening! Since I wrote at length about this important safety requirement back in April 2021, I have only heard of one additional venue that is providing COVID-safe ventilation — the Javits Center in New York City. [Heard of others? Let me know, either directly or via comments on this post!]

Let me put this in simple terms. COVID-19 is here to stay for the indefinite future. Would you want to stay in a hotel room with ventilation that includes air from the room next door where a COVID-positive person is sleeping? Do you want to mingle, unmasked, during a meeting social with strangers where the ventilation rate is inadequate to clear the air of COVID-19 aerosols? Even if you’re cavalier about such infection risks, we have a duty of care to attendees and staff.

Right now, updating venue ventilation for COVID-19 is a competitive advantage. Being able to say a property is compliant with current ventilation guidance is a great selling point, as the Javits Center illustrates.

Plan for future COVID-19 variants (and new pandemics)

To date we’ve had several COVID-19 variants play havoc with our in-person meeting plans. We now need to assume that another new dominant variant could appear at any time.

Dominance occurs because a new variant is more transmissible than older ones. A dominant variant may or may not cause more severe disease than other variants.

What this means is that we now need backup plans for switching in-person meetings that can’t be postponed to online formats at relatively short notice. Yes, our work just got even more complicated than it already was. Meetings sure aren’t getting any easier to plan!

Conclusions for a new meeting industry normal

Finally, it should be clear that at this point I’m still cautious about returning to in-person meetings. Millions of people—the elderly, the immunocompromised, and young children who cannot yet be vaccinated—are particularly vulnerable to severe consequences if they catch COVID-19. Some may have to wear masks for the rest of their lives. Premature removal of mask and vaccination mandates at meetings will cause additional, possibly fatal illnesses amongst this population. I hope meeting planners do not rush to relax these important mandates in the mistaken belief that we have reached or are about to return to the old meeting normal.

My concluding paragraph from Part 2 of these posts still applies:

“We are living in unprecedented times. Experimenting with new approaches to designing and convening meetings is essential. What may be even harder is discovering what works and adopting it, rather than staying locked in the old comfortable ways of making meetings. Meetings will continue to occur, and the meeting industry will survive. But don’t passively buy into the myth of a new meeting industry normal. That is if you want to remain a player in one of the most important industries the human race has created.”

An affordable air quality tool for meeting planners

air quality tool meter CO2
The COVID-19 pandemic has devastated the in-person meeting industry. Though it took too long to recognize that COVID-19 spreads via air transmission, we finally have effective procedures (vaccine mandates, masking, air quality standards, and social distancing) to reduce infection risk at in-person meetings. Now, meeting planners can add an affordable air quality tool to their site visits.

How can you determine air quality at a prospective venue?

Look around the room at an in-person event and you’ll see if masking and social distancing are taking place. We can implement vaccination mandates using third party vendors such as sharemy.health, CLEAR Health Pass, Safe Expo, and others. But how can we determine the air quality at a prospective venue?

Currently, we don’t know how to detect airborne COVID-19 viruses. (This is likely to be true for a long time. We still have no test for airborne tuberculosis bacterium (TB) transmission two centuries after identifying TB as a distinct disease.)

Luckily, under conditions I’ll outline below, we can obtain useful information about a venue’s air quality by using a device that measures a proxy for air pollution: carbon dioxide (CO₂).

People breathe in air, typically containing about 0.04% CO₂. They breathe out a mixture of gases containing about 4 – 5 % CO₂. People with COVID-19 co-exhale respiratory aerosols containing the SARS-CoV-2 virus.

If an occupied building space has effective ventilation, the occupants’ excess exhaled CO₂ is quickly diluted with fresh air, and the CO₂ level in the air remains close to normal values. Measuring the level of CO₂ in the air can, therefore, tell us whether effective ventilation is present or not.

Here are the generally accepted standards for CO₂ levels:

~400 parts per million (ppm) – Normal outdoor air level.
400 ~ 1000 ppm – Typical value level indoors with good ventilation.
1,000 ppm – the OSHA/ASHRAE recommended maximum level in a closed room.
> 1,200 ppm – Poor air quality – requires ventilation to the room.
2,000 ppm – This level of CO2 typically produces a significant increase in drowsiness, tiredness, headaches, lower levels of concentration, and an increased likelihood of spreading respiratory viruses.

Until recently, meters that measure CO₂ levels in the air cost hundreds of dollars. (Some models with especially accurate sensors or the capability to measure other air pollutants still do.) But today we can buy an affordable air quality tool — a hand-held CO₂ meter for under $100. The one I just purchased (illustrated above) cost $80, and there’s a wide variety to choose from (for example, from here or here).

My 3.27″ (diameter) x 1.26″ (depth) meter measures CO₂ levels from 0 – 5,000 ppm. It can run on standby for 18 hours, supports USB charging, and includes a battery level indicator and temperature and humidity readings. While its specifications omit accuracy, inexpensive CO₂ meters are typically reliable within ±100 ppm. This is good enough to provide a decent estimate of the air quality in an enclosed space.

My unit shows a concentration of ~350 ppm CO₂ outside my rural Vermont home, which was built tightly. In my home office, the level increases to about 450 ppm, and rises to about 525 ppm if I’m sitting next to the unit for a while. Slightly cracking open a window quickly brings down the reading.

I haven’t had time to explore other buildings yet, but am looking forward to seeing what I find out when I do.

Is a CO₂ a proxy for indoor air quality in occupied spaces?

Can measuring CO₂ levels give us a useful indication of indoor air quality?

The answer is a qualified yes. It depends!

First of all, we need to measure CO₂ levels in occupied spaces. A meeting planner doing a site visit should take CO₂ readings in occupied meeting rooms, restaurants, hotel lobbies, etc. Taking measurements in empty spaces will only show high readings if the building ventilation system is grossly inadequate (with CO₂ infiltrating from other areas.) Also bear in mind that increasing the number of occupants in a space increases the likelihood that an infectious person will be present and the number of people possibly infected. Doubling occupancy can thus cause a four-fold increase in risk of transmitting COVID-19.

Second, there are sources of CO₂ that are not related to human exhalation but will increase meter readings. A common source is combustion emissions such as gas stoves, which can significantly increase CO₂ levels. Pets can also increase CO₂ levels, though animals are unlikely to be sources of the COVID-19 virus. Such sources will cause increased levels of CO₂ without increasing the incidence of COVID-19 transmission.

Finally, air treatment options, such as MERV 13 or better filtering, or possibly ultraviolet-C radiation, may reduce the prevalence of active COVID-19 aerosols. When venues employ these mitigation strategies, CO₂ levels will not be decreased. Of course, if a venue has deployed these preventative measures, they will surely inform you about them when asked!

Due to these factors, you shouldn’t rely solely on measurements of CO₂ levels to determine whether a space is ventilated enough to mitigate transmission risk.

However, a simple CO₂ meter like the one I now own can be an effective air quality tool, providing valuable information to anyone who wants to investigate the air quality of occupied spaces at venues, hotels and properties, restaurants, and other meeting locales. I’ll be bringing mine when I travel, and I encourage you to do this as well!

More information on the relationship between CO₂ levels and COVID-19 exposure

If you’d like to learn more about the relationship between CO₂ levels and COVID-19 exposure risk, here are some useful references:

And here are some less technical media articles on CO₂ meters:

Are in-person events COVID safe?

in-person events COVID safeSeptember 2021 — Are in-person events COVID safe? The worldwide meeting industry is desperately, and understandably, waiting for the answer to this question to be “Yes”. Well, Freeman, the largest global event management firm, has just announced “the truth is, in-person events are actually safer than many daily activities, like trips to the grocery store — and we have the data to prove it”.

Sadly, while I acknowledge and appreciate Freeman’s significant work on the case for recommencing meeting in person, I believe this claim is misleading, and the underlying modeling and research include flawed assumptions.

Make no mistake; I love to design and facilitate in-person meetings. I strongly desire to be able to safely return to facilitating and attending in-person events. But, as meeting professionals, we have a professional duty of care during the COVID-19 pandemic, and I think it’s important to provide a realistic assessment of risk for meeting stakeholders—especially potential attendees. Articles are already appearing in meeting publications (1, 2) that highlight the one-line summary of the Freeman announcement above. Such opinions, buttressed by what seems to be solid research and modeling, can easily give our industry the impression that in-person meetings can safely recommence.

My concerns about Freeman’s statements

I have two broad concerns about Freeman’s summary of research “Inside LIVE: The data you need to navigate the Delta variant for events” on the safety of in-person events. You can watch Freeman’s 55-minute webinar, posted on August 25, 2021, below.

1—Freeman’s overall conclusion is misleading

My first concern is that Freeman’s big picture conclusion that “in-person events are actually safer than many daily activities, like trips to the grocery store” is a misleading characterization of the statistics they present.

in-person events COVID safe

Here are the statistics (from the next webinar slide).

in-person events COVID safe

This slide compares the mid-August, 2021 rate of COVID cases amongst the entire population in the United States with the reported rates from four recent large in-person events. The second column shows the infection rate as a percentage.

The entire U.S. infection rate is indeed higher than the reported rates from the listed recent in-person events. (I’ll add that we know that reported rates are typically significantly lower than actual rates, but let’s assume that both sets of statistics are undercounted to the same degree.)

Unfortunately, Freeman’s statement that “in-person events are actually safer than many daily activities, like trips to the grocery store” does not follow from the data on this slide!

Why?

Because the statement conflates the risk of a masked visit to a grocery store with the overall risk in the United States of getting infected! The latter regrettably includes a significant fraction of the U.S. population who won’t or can’t get vaccinated, don’t wear masks to protect against airborne transmission of COVID-19, and don’t social distance. The risk of contracting COVID-19 during a grocery store masked visit is far less than the overall risk for everyone in the U.S.

The headline statement is, therefore, comparing apples to oranges. You’d expect any event that implements precautions against COVID-19 transmission to have a lower infection rate than the entire United States. That doesn’t mean that attending an event is a safe enough choice for attendees and staff.

This brings us to what’s actually important to people trying to make a decision whether to attend an event. The event modeling, performed for Freeman by Epistemix, and discussed later, suggests that those who are currently likely to attend a large in-person business event that implements mitigation strategies such as vaccination requirements, masking, and social distancing, are significantly more likely to be vaccinated (~80%). That statistic seems credible to me.

Such potential attendees, who are already more careful than the average American about how they live their lives in a pandemic, aren’t interested in whether an event environment provides a risk of getting COVID-19 comparable to the average risk of the entire population of the U.S. Rather, they want to know if attending the event will significantly (defined by them) increase their likelihood of contracting COVID-19. And that brings me to the second concern about the assumptions made by Epistemix’s event risk model.

2—The event risk model used for risk calculations is flawed and incomplete

When I heard about the Freeman webinar (thanks Julius Solaris!), I posted some initial responses. Freeman’s Jessica Fritsche was kind enough to reach out to me and arrange a Zoom call with John Cordier, the CEO of Epistemix, to walk through the data modeling used in the research. And John generously offered an hour of his time for us to talk. We were also joined by Sarah Shewey, Founder/CEO of Happily who was also interested in learning more about how infection rates at meetings could be modeled.

During our hour together, John shared an overview of the Epistemix model. This gave me a better understanding of Epistemix’s approach. The model essentially attempts to simulate the entire population of the United States at an impressive level of detail. It includes numerous geographic and social factors that affect infection risk. However, during our conversation I asked about a number of important factors that I believe Epistemix has not incorporated into their model of calculating meeting risks.

Probably the most important of these is adequately modeling the air quality at the event, given the paucity of information available about the safety of specific venues and properties from an air quality perspective. In addition, the model does not include the additive risks for travel to and from an event, and staying in a hotel during an event. Though it’s likely possible to model the increased risk during (unmasked) eating and drinking social activities during the event, it doesn’t appear that the Epistemix model does this. Finally, though the Epistemix model incorporates information about COVID-19 variants as they become known, I’m skeptical that it can accurately predict in a timely manner the impact of brand new COVID-19 variants.

In the following sections, I’ll expand on these issues in more detail.

Flaws and omissions in Epistemix’s meeting model

First, a tiny introduction to modeling human systems. All models are an approximation of reality. Consequently,

All models are wrong, but some are useful
—aphorism generally attributed to the statistician George Box

My model building background

I learned to program computers in high school, over 50 years ago. Through a series of summer jobs, undergraduate and graduate work, and consulting assignments, I’ve spent years creating computer models of city traffic systems, the interactions of high energy particle beams bombarding matter, the consequences of obscure physics theories, and the functions of complicated administrative systems.

Two fundamental considerations when building and trusting computer models are:

  1. The assumptions one makes in building a model are key to the model being actually useful rather than wrong. Computer models are very seductive. They seem precise and authoritative, and it’s hard to discover and accept their limitations and/or even their completely wrong predictions. Choosing the right assumptions is an art, not a science. One poor assumption can doom a model’s reliability.
  2. Even if you choose good assumptions, implementing them correctly in computer code is difficult. It’s hard to be sure that an implementation faithfully reflects core assumptions. An incorrect implementation of a potentially useful model typically leads to incorrect predictions. If you’re lucky, it’s obvious that a model’s outputs are wrong. But sometimes, predictions are subtly wrong in ways that are easy to overlook.

I’m going to assume that Epistemix models faithfully implement the assumptions made to create them (#2 above). However, I’ve identified four factors that I feel Epistemix has not incorporated into their model of calculating meeting risks. Some of these factors are interlinked.

1—Adequately modeling airborne COVID-19 transmission at a specific event

While talking to John, it became clear to me that the current Epistemix approach does not adequately model the air quality—and the consequent risk of COVID-19 transmission—at a specific event. The model has some capacity to estimate risks (which are generally minimal) in very large, high-ceiling spaces like convention halls. But, of course, the typical meeting venue contains multiple meeting spaces, some of them small, and, critically, the venues do not in general have a good handle (if any) on the air quality in those spaces. (Or, if they do, they’re not talking publicly about it.)

When I wrote about this issue six months ago, I put out an industry wide request to learn of venues and properties that had upgraded their HVAC systems to current ASHRAE recommendations (typically ~5 air changes/hour plus MERV 13 or better air filtering). I promised to publicize the venues that had made these upgrades.

I know such upgrades can be costly, but you’d think that venues and properties that have implemented them would love to promote themselves as having air quality that meets current pandemic-based standards.

To date, I have not been told of a single venue that is now compliant with ASHRAE pandemic recommendations. (I hope that by now there are some, and that they will let this be known.) During the webinar, Freeman said that such work has and is being done. Please share this information, folks! Meeting planners want to know!

Frankly, without this information a) being made available and b) being incorporated into the Epistemix model it’s hard to have much confidence in the infection risks Epistemix’s model predicts.

2—Additive risks for travel to and from an event, and staying in a hotel during an event

Epistemix’s model does not include the additive risks for attendees (and staff) traveling to and from an event. The main concern is air travel. The air industry has stressed that air change rates in aircraft are high (over 10 air changes/hour) and, now that masks are mandatory, infection risks should therefore be low. An excellent investigation by the New York Times “How Safe Are You From Covid When You Fly?” has tempered this assessment somewhat. Of particular interest are comments from a couple of readers who monitored the carbon-dioxide level—an excellent proxy for air quality—during their entire travel. They found that boarding and deplaning air quality was drastically reduced, as well as during the last thirty minutes of one person’s flight. Exposure at terminal restaurants, where masks must be removed, is also potentially risky.

Quite apart from the “event” itself, staying in a venue may greatly increase one’s risk of infection. I wrote about venue and property ventilation concerns in detail in April, 2021, and later articles by PCMA (1, 2) and the New York Times (1) have echoed this concern.

Again, travel risks are not included in Epistemix’s model. They can be significant, and have to be included to determine the relative risk for an event attendee who is choosing whether to participate or staff an event, or not.

3—Modeling the increased risk when masks are off for socials and group meals

Most in-person meetings include meals and socials, when masking is not possible. Unless you hold such unmasked get-togethers outdoors or in safely ventilated venues, airborne transmission of COVID-19 amongst everyone present (attendees and staff) is a potentially significant and unknown risk. Outdoor locations are only possible for limited periods in much of the U.S. As mentioned above, venues and properties remain silent on whether they’ve upgraded and certified their facilities to current ASHRAE recommendations on air quality.

We have also seen reports of numerous cases of reduced, unmasked social distancing at socials and meals. This is understandable in a world where we’ve been masked and apart for so long. But it is still a risky activity, especially in spaces where ventilation is inadequate.

My understanding (which may be incorrect) of Epistemix’s model is that masking is a global parameter for an event. The model does not handle unmasking in specific event spaces for periods of time. Even if the model does have this flexibility, the lack of knowledge of whether such spaces are safely ventilated prevents an accurate risk assessment.

4—Can Epistemix model the appearance of brand new COVID-19 variants?

I am also still skeptical that Epistemix can build new variants into the model predictions in a timely fashion, given how the world took about six months after the delta variant was first identified to realize that it was radically changing COVID-19 transmission rates. While Epistemix’s model includes the infection characteristics of multiple variants, and new variants can be added once they are identified, I wonder if an event organizer who made a go/no-go decision about a fall meeting early this summer based on the Epistemix model would be happy about the increased predicted risks once the delta variant was added.

But John and I didn’t have time to fully explore this issue, so this concern may be overblown.

Are in-person events COVID safe?

I really appreciate John Cordier’s willingness to share an overview of Epistemix’s infection risk model for events. Obviously, my brief introduction means there’s no way I can authoritatively review the extensive assumptions that are built into the model. Epistemix’s model is impressively detailed and, if correctly implemented (which I have no reason to doubt), seems to comprehensively cover core demographics, the data needed to model infection spread in regional populations, and most major components for predicting infection at a specific event.

When I brought up the concerns I’ve listed in this post, I felt that John largely talked past me, continuing with an explanation of the model without responding directly to what I was asking. This was somewhat frustrating. The two exceptions to this were:

  1. My question about whether the model could accurately predict in a timely manner the impact of brand new variants. This arose at the end of our meeting. John indicated that he believed the model was able to do this, but we didn’t have enough time to explore this issue fully. I’m still skeptical, though he might well have been able to convince me otherwise if we’d had more time.
  2. My primary concern about modeling air quality in detail. John admitted during the meeting that the model does not currently handle specific venue air quality architecture at the detail that’s necessary to simulate, say, what happens when you have a session in a smaller classroom with an HVAC system that is not up to current ASHRAE recommendations. It also omits risks due to event participants (and staff) spending time in properties that may have inadequate air quality. He wrote to me afterwards that “he’d be glad to follow up on the air-quality parameters that you think are most important”.

I’ve seen so many pretty models of systems over the decades. To a casual viewer, they look impressive. It’s only because I spent years building and validating such models that I know how misleading they can be, and the difficulty and importance of identifying the key factors and approximations that form the basis of the model and limit its scope and/or accuracy.

Leaving out detailed venue specific air quality modeling, plus the incoming and return travel risks and accommodation risks during an event, plus inadequate modeling of the risk of transmission during socials and food & beverage sessions make the outputs of the Epistemix model suspect. And I’m skeptical that Epistemix can build new variants into the model predictions in a timely fashion.

Finally, I haven’t covered in this article the feasibility of implementing the various mitigation strategies that are available to reduce the risk of COVID-19 infection at meetings. Personally, I’d insist on proof of vaccination (no exceptions) and maximal masking at any event I’m likely to attend in the near future. But I’ll just add here this observation from the Healthcare Information and Management Systems Society‘s HIMSS21 Las Vegas conference for 19,000 attendees. Vaccination was mandatory for all attendees. There were six positive test results (0.03% infarction rate). However, this PCMA article on the event includes the statement: “…you will not be able to service your show if you require every single vendor employee, every single supplier employee, every single temp employee to be vaccinated — there’s just not enough labor out there.” Something to bear in mind.

Are in-person events COVID safe? Ultimately, each of us needs to decide the answer to this question. But, in my opinion, until the COVID-19 case count drops drastically and/or venues can show that their facility ventilation is safe, it’s a violation of our professional duty of care to mislead attendees and those who work in our industry by telling them “in-person events are actually safer than many daily activities, like trips to the grocery store”.

How to trust your gut

How to trust your gut
Three stories and a presentation about “How to trust your gut”.

1 • My gut meets Seth Andrew

Last week, I was about to begin an online presentation on “How to trust your gut” when a national story broke. Major news outlets (1, 2, 3) were reporting that Seth Andrew, founder of a national network of charter schools, had been arrested for allegedly stealing $218,000 from one of the schools: Democracy Prep.

Now it happens that I’ve had an intense set of community interactions with and about Seth Andrew over the last year. I first met him on Facebook on May 28, 2020, where he announced his non-profit, Democracy Builders, had purchased the Marlboro College campus where I taught for ten years.

That same day, it took me just thirty minutes to get a gut feeling that this man could not be trusted. I’ve worked in and with non-profits—in board member, volunteer, and consultant roles—for decades. When I asked Seth about Democracy Builders’ missing 990’s, the reports that every federally tax-exempt organization has to file with the IRS every year, he was clearly evasive and kept trying to change the subject. (In retrospect, now knowing that Seth is alleged to have stolen government funds the year before and transferred them to the exact non-profit I was asking about supplies a new perspective to his reactions.)

[Click on the image of our conversations below and scroll down to and expand my first post, to see Seth’s evasions in the public Facebook thread.]

how to trust your gut

I considered adding this illustrative tale into my presentation. But, with ten minutes until showtime and a promise that the talk would take fewer than 21 minutes, I reluctantly omitted this remarkable story about trusting my gut response to Seth Andrew.

Regardless, my presentation includes other personal stories about how trusting my gut has worked out for me.

2 • How to trust your gut

How did I come to be giving this presentation in the first place? Well, a couple of months ago, my friend, the warm and oh-so talented association maven Kiki L’Italien, invited her Association Chat community members to share anything they wanted to talk about — in just 21 minutes. While reading her invite, “How to trust your gut” somehow popped into my head. I’ve never spoken on this topic before. Nevertheless, trusting my gut, I immediately signed up for a presentation.

During the following weeks, I realized that I had some advice to impart about trusting one’s gut, and put together this presentation that you can now watch.

3 • When your gut leads you astray — the story of vaccine hesitancy

As I share in the presentation, sometimes it’s not a good idea to trust your gut. A good example of this is the current issue of vaccine hesitancy: folks delaying acceptance or refusal of vaccines despite the availability of vaccination services.

I’m not going go into much detail, except to point out that anecdotal stories often win out over facts. While personal stories can be a powerful modality for learning, the steps involved…

  1. Notice the important story.
  2. Capture the story.
  3. Tease out the meaning.

…as described in the post, can be misapplied.

Especially when the stories we hear are untrue.

The reality that…

  • getting the COVID-19 vaccine can protect you from getting sick and helps others in your community;
  • the fast development of COVID-19 vaccines did not corners on testing for safety and efficacy; and
  • side effects of COVID-19 vaccines are temporary

… has been hijacked by deeply held gut beliefs that are the heart of many people’s resistance to getting vaccinated.

For example, research has shown that “[vaccine] skeptics were much more likely than nonskeptics to have a highly developed sensitivity for liberty — the rights of individuals — and to have less deference to those in positions of power. Skeptics were also twice as likely to care a lot about the ‘purity’ of their bodies and their minds.

Such gut feelings can be very strong, and it’s hard to override them using facts and scientific findings.

Unfortunately, relying on such gut feelings and passing up opportunities to receive a COVID-19 vaccine can have deadly consequences. There are countless stories of COVID-19 deniers dying of COVID-19. Here are a few: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5.

Don’t ignore your gut feelings, but test their veracity!

My presentation includes suggestions on what to do to check the accuracy of your gut feelings.

How to trust your gut—the presentation

Last week, I went on Kiki’s show. In 20 minutes, I shared everything I’ve learned (so far) about how to trust your gut, how trusting your gut can change your life, how to get better at doing it…and when you shouldn’t.
How to trust your gutThe presentation includes illustrative personal stories, the four qualities you need in order to trust your gut, how to learn when you shouldn’t trust your gut and two things you can do about it, plus a section on avoiding getting “stuck”.

I hope you enjoy it!

Additional presentation resources

Finally, here are two resources I mention during the presentation for learning about the importance of our gut responses. These excellent books explain in detail why our feelings, rather than our cognition generally drive us to act.

What have you learned about trusting your gut? Do you have stories to share? Wisdom to add? Please let us know in the comments below!

Venue ventilation for COVID-19

venue ventilation COVID-19Attention, meeting planners! Safe meeting venue ventilation for COVID-19 is critical. As we start thinking about returning to in-person events, it’s crucial to check that venues are upgrading their HVAC systems to handle potentially virus-infused air.

There has been little public discussion on this important topic. In this post, I’ll explain why questions about venues’ HVAC safety should be at the top of your site visit checklist.

Before we start, I need to make clear I’m not an HVAC engineer. My (perhaps) relevant background is an ancient Ph.D. in high-energy particle physics, and two years spent exploring ventilation systems—specifically air-to-air heat exchangers—when I owned a solar manufacturing company in the 1980s.

Introduction

Since the pandemic began, the science on COVID-19 transmission has evolved rapidly. Because early theories turned out to be inaccurate, current preventative measures are frequently misdirected. So I’ve included a short history of theories of COVID-19 transmission that shed light on the reasons we’ve underestimated the importance of ventilation in creating safe environments for indoor events.

Next, I’ve outlined what current research indicates venues and properties should be doing.

Finally, I’ve aired my concerns about how well venues and properties are responding to the safety concerns I’ve introduced.

Read the rest of this entry »

No, I do not hate in-person meetings

hate in-person meetingsI’d like to be clear that I don’t hate in-person meetings, despite what some have been posting recently on a Facebook group for meeting professionals:

“Often wondered why so many on this feed hate live events.”

“It is my opinion that this group does not support any in-person meetings or gatherings of any kind…”

” I am sad to see so many industry giants verbally destroying our industry – apparently with glee.”

Let’s explore what’s causing opinions and feelings like this in the meeting industry.

The tension in the meeting industry

As I’ve said before, the pandemic’s impact on lives and businesses has been devastating, especially for the meeting industry. COVID-19 has virtually eliminated in-person meetings: our industry’s bread and butter. Many meeting professionals have lost their jobs, and are understandably desperate for our industry to recover. We are all looking for ways for in-person meetings to return.

Unfortunately, I and many others believe there is a strong case to make against currently holding in-person meetings. Ethically, despite the massive personal and financial consequences, we should not be submitting people to often-unadvertised, dangerous, and life-threatening conditions so we can go back to work.

I’ve been posting bits and pieces of the case against currently holding in-person meetings on various online platforms, and decided it was time to bring everything together in one (long for me) post. I hope many meeting industry professionals will read this and respond. As always, all points of view are welcome, especially those that can share how to mitigate any of the following concerns.

The strong case against holding in-person meetings right now

Here are four important reasons why I think we shouldn’t be holding “large” in-person meetings right now. (Obviously, “large” is a moving target. Checking Georgia Tech’s COVID-19 Event Risk Assessment Planning Tool as I write this, a national US event with 500 people is extremely likely (>95%) to have one or more COVID-19 positive individuals present.)

1) Posted safety protocols are not followed

Seven months ago, I explained why, in my opinion, in-person meetings do not make sense in a COVID-19 environment. I assumed that in-person meetings could, in principle, be held safely if everyone:

  • meticulously observed social distancing and masking;
  • could safely travel to and from events;
  • be housed safely; move around event venues while safely maintaining social distancing; and
  • eat and drink safely.

Even if one could meet these difficult conditions, I questioned the value of such in-person meetings. Why? Because meetings are fundamentally about connection around relevant content. And it’s impossible to connect well with people wearing face masks who are six or more feet apart!

In addition, there’s ample evidence that some people won’t follow declared safety protocols. Since I wrote that post, we have heard reports and seen examples of in-person meetings where attendees and staff are not reliably social distancing, and/or aren’t wearing masks properly or at all.

Orlando, Florida, OCCC Together Again Expo, July 2020

This is most likely to happen during socials and meals, where attendees have to temporarily remove masks. It’s understandably hard for people to resist our lifetime habit of moving close to socialize.

2) We perform hygiene theater—but please don’t ask us about our ventilation systems

Many venues trumpet their comprehensive COVID-19 cleaning protocols. Extensive cleaning was prudent during the early pandemic months, when we didn’t know much about how the virus spread. But we now know that extensive cleaning is hygiene theater (1, 2); the primary transmission vector for COVID-19 is airborne.

A recent editorial in the leading scientific journal Nature begins: “Catching the virus from surfaces is rare” and goes on to say “efforts to prevent spread should focus on improving ventilation or installing rigorously tested air purifiers”.

I haven’t heard of any venues that have publicly explained how their ventilation systems minimize or eliminate the chance of airborne COVID-19 transmission!

Why? Because it’s a complicated, and potentially incredibly expensive issue to safely mitigate. And venues are reluctant or unable to do the custom engineering and, perhaps, costly upgrades necessary to ensure that the air everyone breaths onsite is HEPA filtered fast enough to keep any COVID-positive attendee shedding at a safe level.

Adequate ventilation of indoor spaces where people have removed masks for eating or drinking is barely mentioned in governmental gathering requirements (like this one, dated March 3, 2021, from the State of Nevada). These guidelines assume that whatever ventilation existed pre-COVID is adequate under the circumstances, as long as all parties are socially distanced. We know from research that there are locales — e.g. dining rooms with low ceilings or inadequate ventilation — where this is not a safe practice, since it’s possible for COVID-carrying aerosols to travel far further than 6 feet.

In case you are interested, current recommendations are for MERV 13 filtering throughout the venue. Does your venue offer this?

P.S. I expect there are venues that have done this work. Do you know of venues that have done the engineering to certify a measurable level of safe air on their premises? If so, please share in the comments! We should know about these conscientious organizations.

3) Inadequate or no pre-, during-, or post- COVID testing, and contact tracing

Shockingly, many in-person meetings now taking place require no pretesting of staff or attendees. (News flash: Checking someone’s forehead temperature when they enter a venue will not detect anyone who is infectious for the two days before symptoms appear, or who is asymptomatic.)

Even if everyone in the venue is tested daily, the widely used quick tests are simply too unreliable. From Nature again:

“Deeks says that a December trial at the University of Birmingham is an example of how rapid tests can miss infections. More than 7,000 symptom-free students there took an Innova test; only 2 tested positive. But when the university researchers rechecked 10% of the negative samples using PCR, they found another 6 infected students. Scaling that up across all the samples, the test probably missed 60 infected students.”
—Nature, February 9, 2021, Rapid coronavirus tests: a guide for the perplexed

Finally, I find it upsetting that venues like the OCCC keep claiming that they are #MeetingSafely when they are doing no post-event follow-up! If an attendee contracts COVID-19 at the event, returns home, and infects grandma, how would the OCCC ever know?! Under the circumstances, I think it’s misleading, dangerous, and unethical for such a venue to publicly claim that they are providing an #MeetingSafely environment.
hate in-person meetings

4) We’re meeting safe—but you can’t sue us if we’re not

In fact, some in-person meetings quietly acknowledge that they may not be providing a “safe” environment. One meeting venue held an in-person meeting that required waivers that forever bind attendees and their family members, and “heirs, assigns and personal representatives” not to sue if they contract COVID-19.

“I voluntarily assume full responsibility for any risks of loss or personal injury, including serious illness, injury or death, that may be sustained by me or by others who come into contact with me, as a result of my presence in the Facilities, whether caused by the negligence of the AKC or OCCC or otherwise … I UNDERSTAND THIS IS A RELEASE OF LIABILITY AND AGREE THAT IT IS VALID FOREVER. It is my express intent that this Waiver binds; (i) the members of my family and spouse, if I am alive, and (ii) my heirs, assigns and personal representatives, if I am deceased.”
—Extract from the Orlando, Florida, OCCC American Kennel Club National Championship Dog Show, December, 2020, Waiver

I’m not sure how you can bind people to a contract who may not know they are a party to it. But, hey, I’m not a lawyer…

So, can we safely and ethically hold in-person meetings right now?

For the reasons shared above, I don’t believe we can safely and ethically hold in-person meetings right now. Consequently, it’s alarming that many venues, and some meeting planners, are promoting in-person meetings in the near future.

Do I hate in-person meetings?

By now it should be clear that I stand with meeting professionals like Cathi Lundgren, who posted the following in our Facebook group discussions:

“I’m not going to be silent when someone holds a meeting in a ballroom with a 100+ people and no masking or social distancing…I own a global meetings company—and we haven’t worked since March but no matter how much I want to get back at it I’m not going to condone behaviors that are not positive for the overall health of our industry.”
Cathi Lundgren, CMP, CAE

And here’s how I replied to the first Facebook commenter quoted at the top of this post:

“For goodness sake. I LOVE in-person events. It’s been heartbreaking for me, like everyone, to have not attended one for a year now. But that doesn’t mean I am going to risk stakeholder, staff, and attendee lives by uncritically supporting in-person meetings that are, sadly, according to current science, still dangerous to attend. When in-person meetings are safe to attend once more — and that day can’t come soon enough — you bet I’ll be designing, facilitating, and attending them.”

I hope it’s clear that I, and those meeting professionals who are pointing out valid safety and ethical concerns, don’t hate in-person meetings. Realistically, the future of in-person meetings remains uncertain, even with the amazing progress in developing and administering effective vaccines. More mutant COVID-19 strains that are resistant to or evade current vaccines, transmit more effectively, or have more deadly effects are possible. Any such developments could delay or fundamentally change our current hopes that maintaining transmission prevention plus mass vaccination will bring the pandemic under control.

I’m cautiously optimistic. But, right now, there are still too many unknowns for me to recommend clients to commit resources to future large 100% in-person events. Hub-and-spoke format hybrid meetings look like a safer bet. Regardless, everyone in the meeting industry hopes that it will be safe to hold in-person meetings real soon.

In the meantime, please don’t attack those of us in the industry who point out safety and ethical issues and the consequences of prematurely scheduling in-person meetings. We want them back too! We all miss them.

Don’t be a hero — solve small problems!

When’s the right time to solve small problems? The right answer is almost always “as soon as practically possible!

Why? Because small problems often become large problems if we don’t work on them in a timely fashion.

Unfortunately, people don’t appreciate the value of promptly solving small problems, because (see cartoon below) we love to acknowledge and reward heroes — people who solve big problems, aka emergencies — rather than the folks who proactively solve small problems and prevent emergencies in the first place.
solve small problems

“Prevention is better than Cure. But which one makes a better story?” by @workchronicles

Two societal examples

Here are two examples of the value of solving small problems early, and the consequences when you don’t. The first is one where solving small problems in advance averted major world disruption. During the second, world leaders delayed solving small problems, resulting in millions of avoidable deaths.

Read the rest of this entry »

The meeting industry new normal — Part 2

meeting industry new normalThe meeting industry old normal is over, and many event professionals are hoping and waiting for a new normal. [See Part 1 of this post for an introduction to this point of view.]

What will the meeting industry new normal look like?

One silver lining of the coronavirus pandemic, horrendous though its cost has been, is that it has forced us to think differently. In a July 2020 New Yorker article, Gianna Pomata, a professor of the history of medicine, “compared COVID-19 to the bubonic plague that struck Europe in the fourteenth century—’not in the number of dead but in terms of shaking up the way people think.'” But the effects of these two plagues were remarkably different. (For example, the Black Death increased the power of workers because labor was scarce. In contrast, COVID-19 has forced millions of low-paid workers further into poverty.)

The meeting industry old normal

For centuries, the meeting industry has believed that the “best” and “most important” meetings are those conducted face-to-face. For most of human history, of course, this has been the only meeting option. Technology has slowly made inroads on this assumption, with the development of the telephone, the conference call, video chat, etc. Each new technology has taken away a little piece of the need to meet in person under certain favorable conditions.

The meeting industry new normal

In 2020, we have been forced to think differently. Historians regard the devastation of the bubonic plague as the end of the Middle Ages. Similarly, I think that COVID-19 will turn out to mark the beginning of the end of in-person meetings as the bread and butter of the meeting industry.

What will a new normal for the meeting industry look like? There’s no way we can know. Why? Because the future of meetings is no longer tied to the old paradigms we’ve assumed ever since the first official “conference” was held in 1666. (See my book Conferences That Work for the details.) There has been no new normal since the end of the thousand-year reign of the Middle Ages. Similarly, the forced rise of online meetings has moved us into uncharted and unpredictable territory.

The meeting industry is now, perhaps, in what the founder of VISA, Dee Hoc, called the Chaordic Age. In Dave Snowden‘s Cynefin framework, the meeting industry, formerly rooted in the obvious and complicated domains, has now moved into the complex domain. To solve problems in the complex domain, experiments need to be conducted in order to determine what to do.

One thing to learn from history and the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on the meeting industry? Don’t waste your time pining for or hoping for a static meeting industry new normal.

Next practices, not best practices

In other words, this is a time for next practices not best practices. Our industry needs to experiment to discover what works and what doesn’t.

This is proving to be difficult.

Even pre-pandemic, it was risky to try new meeting ideas, because our clients, understandably, want successful events. Taking risks increases the chances of failure.

Today, with the current collapse of in-person meetings, it’s harder to find the resources, margins, and willing clients we once had, in order to conduct experiments.

Yet our industry must find the resources, courage, and willingness, to experiment with new ways of convening and meeting formats that respond to these new challenges. We are all suffering now. Those who continue to shoehorn what they used to do into our current pandemic and future post-pandemic environment will continue to suffer.

I’m encouraged that our industry is indeed experimenting with a variety of new platforms, marketing and pricing models, and meeting formats. One of the most interesting and welcome developments is the rapid growth of new platforms (1, 2) that provide online incarnations of traditional conference in-person socials. I see them as game-changers for online events, replacing the hallway conversations that have always been an essential and undervalued component of traditional meetings.

We are living in unprecedented times. Experimenting with new approaches to designing and convening meetings is essential. What may be even harder is discovering what works and adopting it, rather than staying locked in the old comfortable ways of making meetings. Meetings will continue to occur, and the meeting industry will survive. But don’t passively buy into the myth of a new meeting industry normal. That is if you want to remain a player in one of the most important industries the human race has created.