In-person medical conferences are back in full swing this year, and members of the oncology community are weighing the risks and benefits of attending these events in the COVID-19 era.
Conference organizers have required that attendees provide proof of vaccination and/or a negative COVID-19 test before the meeting, but most organizers have not mandated masking or required regular COVID-19 testing onsite.1-4
Attendees who test positive for SARS-CoV-2 are instructed to isolate and either inform contacts themselves or inform the organizers of a positive test, but there are no systems in place to ensure these steps are taken.
This lack of safety measures and the rise of COVID-19 cases in some regions have prompted some members of the oncology community to stick with virtual conference attendance this year, deeming it the only safe option right now.5,6
Others have decided that in-person conference attendance is worth it, as they believe the overall risk of getting COVID-19 to be low. The actual risk of getting COVID-19 at a conference remains unknown. There have been reports of attendees testing positive for SARS-CoV-2 during or after oncology conferences, but it has been difficult to quantify transmission, as there are no formal tracking systems.
Lack of Masks
A key factor influencing decisions about in-person conference attendance is policies on masking, and the lack of mask mandates at oncology conferences has been an issue for some attendees.7
Neither the American Association for Cancer Research (AACR) nor the American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO) required masks at their annual meetings this year.3,4 Mask wearing was “recommended” or “expected” but not mandated or enforced at either conference.
Manali Patel, MD, was one of many attendees who spoke out about the lack of a mask mandate at the ASCO Annual Meeting.7 Once at the conference, she found that many people were not wearing masks. Other attendees reported similar experiences, and searching the conference hashtag, #ASCO22, on Instagram reveals many mask-free faces.
“It was really hard for me the first day when I walked around and saw so many people unmasked,” said Dr Patel, an assistant professor at Stanford Medicine and an oncologist at the VA Palo Alto Health Care System in California.
“If we want to get out of this pandemic, we have to lead by example, and if anything, we are the ones that know and see first-hand the suffering this pandemic has caused for our patients, one another, and our communities,” she added.
Dr Patel said she did everything she could to limit her chances of getting COVID-19 at the conference. She double-masked with N95 and surgical masks throughout the meeting, including when she was presenting, tested daily, and avoided events where people were unmasked and eating. Dr Patel continued to mask when she returned home, got a negative PCR test before returning to the clinic after the conference, and continued to test for 5 days after traveling.
Despite these precautions, Dr Patel said she was anxious throughout the conference, knowing that she would be returning to the clinic to treat vulnerable patients.
Not Worth the Risk: Protecting Yourself and Patients
Some oncology professionals are deciding that in-person conference attendance is not worth the risk to themselves, their community, or their patients, particularly when virtual attendance is an option.
Amy C. Moore, PhD, vice president of global engagement and patient partnerships at the LUNGevity Foundation, is a trained virologist and has been leading her organization’s COVID-19 response. Dr Moore said her organization decided not to attend the ASCO Annual Meeting in person due to surging COVID-19 cases across much of the United States and the lack of a mask mandate for attendees.
Looking ahead to the World Conference on Lung Cancer (WCLC) in August and the European Society for Medical Oncology (ESMO) Congress in September, Dr Moore said she is not planning to attend those conferences in person either.
“I question the logic of this seeming rush back to in-person conferences. Yes, we have vaccines that are great at preventing severe infections and death, but we know that they were never intended or really supposed to block transmission,” Dr Moore said. “For myself and organizations like ours that are patient facing, we really have to weigh the value add of being in person. Is it something that we can’t do via hybrid events?”