September 28th, 2022

Even if You Think “The Pandemic Is Over” — Let’s Make In-Person Meetings Safer

“The pandemic is over.”

Someone very famous used these words recently, triggering all kinds of controversy.

While most ID clinicians groaned at the comment, knowing that it would be taken out of context, repeated in headlines without any of the President’s cautionary statements, and fuel COVID denialists, it’s also worth acknowledging that most of the country really does feel this way.

Look, if at least 90% (rough estimate) of travelers at Boston’s Logan Airport no longer wear masks, either while waiting for their flight or on the plane, it must be 99% in most other U.S. airports.

(I checked with my colleagues in other cities. It is.)

Plus, schools are open, restaurants busy, concerts and sporting events full. Postponed weddings are happening. People again travel for business and academic meetings.

If we haven’t returned to prepandemic “normal,” whatever that is, we’re certainly heading that way. Why? Because you’d have to be a hermit if you either haven’t had COVID yourself, or don’t have several close family members or friends who’ve had it — sometimes multiple times — and recovered uneventfully.

“The flu I had a few years ago was much worse,” said one of my own friends this week, walking his dog in our neighborhood, and looking just fine.

In short, the infection remains incredibly common, likely will get most if not all of us eventually, and — here’s the fact — just isn’t as severe as it once was, mostly because of vaccines and prior infection-induced immunity. All these things are true.

This is the part of the post where I need to insert these critical and essential caveats. Some people still get quite sick from COVID — I worry in particular about those with weakened immune systems. Some people will get long COVID. And testing positive is still enormously disruptive, forcing people into isolation and wreaking havoc on schools, workplaces, daycare centers, and many carefully planned events. In short, COVID still s–ks.

You can quote me on that. Colds, flu, RSV, and company are pretty lousy too.

But as part of the improvement in the prognosis for COVID, and the opening of our society (even for ID docs) to multiple activities that previously had been cancelled, I want to address one in particular — and that’s in-person meetings.

We can’t make them 100% safe. Can we at least make them safer?

So far I’ve traveled to three, and of course my colleagues have started doing the same. IDWeek is coming up in October, CROI in February, and these meetings will undoubtedly include many meetings and unmasked social interactions that could spread both COVID and other respiratory viruses. I get that.

But mitigating strategies are still welcome. One such meeting at IDWeek specifically cited that it would take place in a room “that has accordion doors so it can be opened up for airflow, as well as a wrap-around balcony.” Terrific. Ventilation is good — it’s one of the major lessons learned during the pandemic.

Another meeting asked us to do rapid antigen tests on arrival. No, these tests aren’t perfect, and they don’t screen for other respiratory viruses, but the positive predictive value of them is high. I’d welcome a cluster randomized trial of testing vs. no testing prior to in-person meetings.

So let me share an example of what not to do, “pandemic is over” notwithstanding.

I recently went to a meeting of other ID specialists, and planned ahead of time to be unmasked during both the meeting and the lunch. I figured we ID docs would not attend if we had a respiratory illness. We’ve gotten good at that, avoiding illness “presenteeism,” and most people with contagious respiratory viruses have symptoms. So that was some reassurance.

But here’s the not-OK part: The meeting took place in a tiny, crowded, low-ceilinged room, with barely a few inches between seated participants — the very converse of “social distancing.” If someone had one of those CO2 meters placed strategically in the center, I suspect it would have been sounding its alarm from the first 30 minutes.

The room was small enough that multiple people commented about the forced intimacy, making jokes about how ironic it was that we ID doctors would be sharing so much mutual air over the next several hours — especially because it was a beautiful fall day. “We should have the meeting outside,” said one of the organizers. Ha ha.

Yep, it was packed in there — if not quite phone booth stuffing or Marx Brothers-stateroom tight, certainly much more crowded than any meeting room I’d been in for years. Let’s just say it’s a good thing we all showered after our morning run or time on the elliptical, because any hygiene infractions would have been immediately evident. Lunch, fortunately, was in a much larger, well-ventilated room.

So I wore an N95 mask during the meeting. I was the only one.

Because COVID still s–ks.

6 Responses to “Even if You Think “The Pandemic Is Over” — Let’s Make In-Person Meetings Safer”

  1. Alan Taege says:

    Thank you, Paul. Yes, we know everyone has total “Covid fatigue” and wants it to be over and gone. Sadly, not true and is likely to stay with us for who knows how long – endemicity? It is not asking much to suggest everyone continues to mask in these situations. We will at least obtain the limited protection that masks offer for Covid and other respiratory viruses.

  2. Herbert Gramm MD says:

    Very sensible recommendations.Meetings should be virtual (Zoom) which avoids the expense and hassle of travel and makes a small contribution to saving the planet.

  3. Eric says:

    Love that Marx Brothers’ scene! How did you find it?

  4. Juan S. Blanch Jr. MD says:

    N 95 masks worn on a shaved face, in a person who is trained to use, worn for less than 16 hours, reduces risk of transmission of disease.

    I worked at NASA and we trained people to wear masks, did fit testing, made those in the program shave because this is the OSHA, scientifically based, guidance.

    Anything short of that is USELESS THEATER.


    • James R. Chaillet, Jr., MD says:

      Thank you for your comment with a mixture of science and common sense.

    • C. Curtis says:

      Yes, an N95 mask must fit and be worn properly to function to its rating. But a badly fitting mask — or something with a much lower rating, such as a surgical mask — is still better than no mask at all.

      It’s like clothing. You need something like a good, windproof down jacket to keep warm in winter. A jacket with a broken zipper isn’t as good, but it is better than no jacket. A light sweater is inadequate, but is still better than a t-shirt. And even a t-shirt is better than bare skin.

      So, not useless, and certainly not just theater.

HIV Information: Author Paul Sax, M.D.

Paul E. Sax, MD

Contributing Editor

NEJM Journal Watch
Infectious Diseases

Biography | Disclosures | Summaries

Learn more about HIV and ID Observations.