As I pushed open the glass doors of the conference hall, I felt the familiar rush of excitement mixed with nerves unique to scientific conferences. People milled around the lobby, chatting with one another, poster tubes slung over their shoulders. Others hustled toward the escalators, laptops tucked under their arms. I slung my press pass over my neck and joined them, ready to soak up a week of exciting new science. But COVID-19 was never far from my mind.
While many people in my local community have stopped wearing masks inside, I’ve been slower to let my guard down. I have a close family member who is immunocompromised, and my family and I have spent these past three years of the pandemic being very careful to not get him sick.
Knowing that this conference would be the biggest COVID-19 risk I’d taken all pandemic, I did my best to prepare: I got the new bivalent COVID-19 booster and flu shot a couple of weeks before the meeting and restocked my stash of heavy duty KN95 masks.
Just as I’d hoped, the conference filled my cup with exciting new findings and experimental techniques that I can’t wait to share in DDN in the coming months. But the general lack of masking within the packed seminar rooms and poster hall surprised me. From my rough estimate, about a quarter of the attendees wore a face covering of some sort inside.
About three days after I returned home from the conference, my cellphone buzzed. An unfamiliar pink icon and a long block of text lit up my screen: California Department of Public Health - Possible exposure to COVID-19 virus. My heart sank.
As each rapid test and PCR test turned up negative, it seemed like I was spared. But a quick perusal of the conference hashtag on Twitter told me that other attendees were not so lucky.
Nothing can replace the organic interactions and joy of seeing old colleagues at in person scientific meetings. Some of the most fruitful collaborations and epiphanies happen at poster sessions or over coffee. But the risk of COVID-19 is still very real. Viruses don’t care about new conference friendships. They just want a new host to infect.
For many researchers who are immunocompromised or have family members who are, in person meetings are still inaccessible and will remain so for the foreseeable future. Even for healthy people, a mild COVID-19 infection can lead to long COVID and other long-term effects that scientists are still trying to understand.
There are many science backed precautions that conference organizers can impose to reduce the risk of COVID-19 among attendees. Requiring COVID-19 vaccination — which prevents severe disease but not necessarily infection — is a good start, but an indoor masking requirement is even better. Asking attendees to take a rapid antigen test before traveling to a conference is one simple precaution and having free or low cost testing available on site is another.
We will likely be living with COVID-19 for a long time, so how will we, as members of the scientific community, respond to it — with a shrug or with a plan?