Has COVID-19 changed medical conferences forever?

medical education

By Dave Levitan

8 Feb 2021

Dave Levitan, editor of the limbic UK

You’re heading to the ballroom or the main hall, just in time for the conference’s plenary session to begin, when your mobile buzzes in your pocket. You take a look: your temperature is up to 38.2°C, an app declares. You are feeling a bit flushed, now that you consider it. And reluctantly, you head back the way you came, away from the gathering crowd.

This scenario isn’t actually all that far off. As another season’s worth of medical, scientific, and many other conferences once again announce plans to remain virtual, the question has arisen as to what, exactly, the meetings of the future might look like. In the US, one conference might be offering up an idea.

The American College of Cardiology’s 70th Annual Scientific Session & Expo (ACC.21), which is being held from 15-17 May, is experimenting with a hybrid in-person/virtual meeting. They have a series of health and safety measures in place, but they have also partnered with BioIntelliSense, makers of a wearable device that might warn you of an increasing fever as you head to the Plenary, and can give a “Not Cleared” warning at the start of a day telling you to stay in your room.

The BioButton COVID-19 Screening Solution is a “coin-sized” device capable of continuous monitoring of the wearer’s temperature, respiratory rate, and heart rate. At ACC.21, attendees can volunteer to wear one of the devices, theoretically improving the chances of catching a COVID-19 infection before it might spread to others.

The company argues that spot checks for fever, along with the reasonable chance of a negative PCR test for the virus within the first four days of infection, can miss many people. The BioButton’s continuous monitoring, meanwhile, along with “advanced analytics,” can supposedly fill those gaps.

ACC.21 is the first major conference to use this approach; perhaps not coincidentally, it is also among the only major conferences scheduled for the next several months that has eschewed the all-virtual program.

An ACC spokesperson told the limbic that while the usual annual meeting draws about 18,000 people, this year will feature “significantly smaller in-person attendance” in order to allow for social distancing and other measures. The number of attendees who might choose to wear the BioButton is not yet available, the spokesperson said.

According to the ACC, it will follow all COVID-19 safety protocols recommended by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

However, the CDC’s guideline on events and gatherings describe the following event as “higher risk”: “Medium-sized in-person gatherings that are adapted to allow individuals to remain spaced at least 6 feet apart and with attendees coming from outside the local area.” The ACC says it will increase spacing at the conference to allow for such distancing, but avoiding travel to a major conference isn’t exactly on the cards.

Furthermore, the current CDC travel update contains a stark warning: “Cases are Extremely High. Avoid Travel. Travel increases your chance of getting and spreading COVID-19. CDC recommends that you do not travel at this time. Delay travel and stay home to protect yourself and others from COVID-19.”

Of course the meeting is several months away, with ample time for administration of tens of millions of vaccine doses, and that advice may change. If not, though, simply monitoring for fever is unlikely to catch all potential cases at a conference, given the extensive research at this point indicating that asymptomatic people can still transmit the virus. One study published last month found that as many as 50% of cases could originate from exposure to an asymptomatic individual.

In answer to a question regarding asymptomatic spread, the ACC spokesperson said: “The BioButton doesn’t replace CDC recommended health and safety guidance to prevent the spread of COVID-19.”

Other conferences seem to be willing to wait for the pandemic to abate somewhat further before returning to in-person events. But what then? There remains the possibility that COVID-19 persists as more of a background risk for years to come, and the last harrowing year certainly may convince people that staying a bit more vigilant for emerging viral threats even on a personal level is wise.

So maybe, when you head toward the plenary session in 2022 or 2023, and you spot someone stop short and check what an app is telling them before reversing course, you’ll know what happened. At the conference of the future we may be a bit more virtual, a bit more socially distanced, and our personal health a bit more closely monitored.

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