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How safe are in-person medical conferences?

The answer may surprise you

September 2022

HOW SAFE is it to attend in-person medical conferences? A new study looking at covid infection rates after a meeting for surgeons earlier this year may come as a surprise.

Research published in JAMA Network compared covid infection rates among virtual and in-person attendees at the meeting, using covid test results a week after the meeting. They found that there was virtually no difference in infection rates between the two groups.

That may come as a particular surprise given the fact that the meeting was held in Florida in February of 2022, which was a peak transmission period for the Omicron variant.

Researchers noted that meeting organizers took precautions to make the event as safe as possible. In-person attendees were required to be vaccinated and were strongly encouraged to self-test before traveling to the meeting. (Most attendees had also
received a booster.)

Once physicians arrived at the meeting, they were required to wear an N95 or KN95 mask. Food service was outside and indoor social events were prohibited at the meeting.

Among 682 respondents, 1.8% of in-person attendees reported a positive covid test a week after the meeting compared to 1.5% of virtual attendees. While 70% of attendees who tested positive reported missing some work, none were hospitalized.

The authors concluded that their data “suggest that among highly vaccinated clinicians with high risk of occupational exposure, cautious strategies to mitigate COVID-19 transmission during a surge were effective, and in-person meeting attendance posed no
greater risk than professional hazards.”

A commentary piece in the same issue of JAMA Network said that the study offers some hope for a return to in-person meetings. The authors acknowledged, however, that evidence of relative safety in one study is far from a guarantee of safety at other meetings.

The authors of the commentary piece said they believe that despite the positive results of the study, hybrid meetings—a combination of virtual and in-person attendance—will likely thrive. Technology to virtually attend meetings is improving, they pointed out, and virtual options allow more people can attend.

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