The Fate of Conferences: Should We Cancel Amid COVID-19?


The impact of COVID-19 has started to trickle into the sphere of conferences and large events.

In the middle of a pandemic, will we continue to see large gatherings, like conferences or concerts? From South by Southwest (SXSW) to dozens of other large events, COVID-19 now impacts international hosting and attendance at such events. For many, the decision to attend events has been called into question. I know several colleagues who have pulled out of conferences or speaking engagements in the effort to maintain social distancing. Is this the new norm or what will the fate of conferences be for the coming months?

These concerns were further escalated this weekend as it was made public that a person tested positive for SARS-CoV-2/COVID-19 after attending an American Conservative Union conference where many representatives from the White House were in attendance. The Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) was held from February 26-29 and had nearly 20,000 in attendance, including speakers President Trump and Vice President Pence.

The Emerald City Comic Con, which brings in nearly 100,000 fans to Seattle, Washington, recently stated that it would postpone its mid-March event. This was only after though, considerable media attention and the fact that one of the largest COVID-19 outbreaks in the United States is occurring in Washington State.

For many, this begs the question of if conferences and large-scale events will be cancelled in the near-future and if not, should they attend? The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has emphasized that older adults and those with severe chronic medical conditions (heart, lung, or kidney disease) appear to be at a higher risk for more serious COVID-19 illness. For people in those populations, there are recommendations in terms of taking every-day precautions like avoiding close contact with people who are sick, practicing hand hygiene, and more.

The CDC does advise though, that if you fall into those categories and there’s an outbreak in your community, stay home as much as possible. Realistically, this is something to consider for the conference attendee. If you fall into these categories, perhaps consider the concerns by the CDC and rethink attending the large event. Even if you don’t fall into these categories, it is important to practice the infection control measures suggested by CDC: avoid close contact with sick people, practice hand hygiene, stay home when sick, and avoid touching your face. These are basic measure that become even more important during larger events and in public.

Overall, these cancellations align with general guidance on social distancing during the outbreak. This is a unique time in public health and in the United States as we navigate through the COVID-19 outbreak. It is likely that as testing capabilities grow and more community cases are identified, conferences and other large events will be impacted. In those communities with outbreaks, consideration should be given to the increased risk for transmission. This will likely prove challenging though, as the economic impact of these cancellations can be considerable for communities and tourism. The COVID-19 outbreak is a particularly unique situation that will continue to evolve, but so will response efforts.

As the CDC has emphasized several ways to try and prevent the spread of the disease, it important that we all partake in these infection prevention and control measures. Moreover for medical providers, make sure to educate your patients on these concerns if they are considered at risk for more severe illness.

The annual Conference on Retroviruses and Opportunistic Infections (CROI 2020) was scheduled to be held in Boston, Massachusetts, from March 8-11, 2020. Conference organizers have cancelled the in-person meeting format and moved the conference to be a completely virtual event. The Contagion® Editorial Staff is still covering the meeting. Select meeting coverage can be found here.

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