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Big-name tech conferences scheduled for the rest of the year will draw thousands of people to Detroit, Las Vegas and San Francisco convention centers. Attendees will leave with new tech knowledge, wider business networks and, possibly, COVID-19.
Security consultant Paul Grabow believes he caught COVID-19 at the RSA Conference in San Francisco in June. Organizers required attendees to show proof of vaccination or a negative test result upon arriving at the security technology event.
Grabow, who bought a one-day pass only for the showroom floor, expected RSA workers to prevent clusters of people from forming around the booths. Instead, attendees were allowed to jam together to get close to presenters.
Grabow was vaccinated and said he wore a mask most of the time. Nevertheless, he tested positive for COVID-19 the weekend after the show. Because of a respiratory condition, his doctor put him on the antiviral drug Paxlovid.
He suffered from shortness of breath, loss of appetite and severe fatigue. "It's brutal," he said. "You're sleeping a lot, but you can't seem to get your energy together."
Grabow's wife also came down with COVID-19, but her symptoms were milder. In hindsight, Grabow takes responsibility for spending hours on a crowded expo floor and assuming RSA would enforce crowd control.
Paul GrabowSecurity consultant and RSA Conference 2022 attendee
"There's only so much that conference organizers can do, and are willing to do, to minimize the risk," he said.
In a statement, RSA acknowledged that attendees tested positive for COVID-19, but said it did not collect data on whether the conference was the source. Instead, it encouraged expo returnees to test for the virus, monitor for symptoms and "make responsible health choices."
Experts agree that the best health protectors are vaccinations and booster shots to drastically reduce the chances of hospitalization and death. But an infected employee returning from conference parties and meetings can spread COVID-19 to colleagues back at the office, lowering productivity as other workers recover from the illness.
Then there's the risk of long-term effects, known as long COVID-19. Symptoms including depression, difficulty breathing, fatigue and headaches can last for several weeks -- even months. A recent study published in medical journal The Lancet found that 1 in 8 people infected with COVID-19 experienced long COVID symptoms.
The health of conference attendees should be a top priority. The most successful companies will see COVID-19 not as an isolated event, but as a springboard for developing a disease prevention plan for future pandemics or severe flu seasons.
"The best practices that our clients are implementing are around the fact that COVID is with us to stay," said Matthew Bradley, senior vice president at Montreal-based risk management company Crisis24.
Teaching COVID-19 safety
The most effective plan encourages employees to take all government-recommended precautions, according to experts. Mandating behavior at a conference doesn't work because employers can't monitor compliance during tech conferences.
Also, due to medical privacy laws, managers are unlikely to know whether employees are vaccinated or have medical conditions that make them susceptible to severe illness. Covering both possibilities during education sessions is critical so that people can decide for themselves whether to attend an event, Bradley said.
Companies should base safety recommendations on a conference risk evaluation. Advising social distancing or mask-wearing will depend on whether conference organizers require proof of vaccination. Other factors include the event's size and duration, and whether the activities are outdoors, in small rooms or in large, ventilated halls.
During conferences, protecting employees will require a communication channel that keeps them updated on changes in local virus-related restrictions. Mask-wearing indoors, for example, can fluctuate from mandatory to recommended depending on the local infection rate.
Companies shouldn't expect conference organizers to have enough safeguards. They tend to focus on the effects that rules will have on attendance, balancing that with safety, said Soumi Eachempati, CEO of Dallas-based conference safety specialist Cleared4.
Also, conference organizers cannot control how people behave in restaurants or private gatherings.
"[The responsibility] has shifted to the attendees' companies, but also the general common sense of the attendees," Eachempati said.
Indeed, people returning from the Cisco Live conference in June reported testing positive for COVID-19 after the show. In an emailed statement, Cisco didn't address public reports directly. Instead, it said it required attendees to be fully vaccinated.
"The health and safety of our employees, customers and partners is always our priority," the company said.
Abbas Moledina, CFO of London startup YouMakr.ai, didn't come down with COVID-19 after attending the April ASU+GSV Summit in San Diego. He avoided crowds at the education technology event and favored outdoor activities.
Moledina, who said he was vaccinated, weighed the risk with the importance of the event. YouMakr.ai executives presented at the show and met with venture capitalists. Also, the conference provided an opportunity to find partners and sales leads for the maker of cloud-based software that assists people in writing.
"Ultimately, based on our assessment, it was within our risk appetite," Moledina said.
Companies should treat people returning from conferences as possible virus carriers, Crisis24's Bradley said. People exposed to COVID-19 who are up to date on vaccinations and not experiencing symptoms don't have to stay home, but should get tested. Unvaccinated people should stay home and self-quarantine for at least five days, according to the CDC.
It's unlikely that companies will have to navigate another COVID-19 crisis of the magnitude seen in March 2020, when schools, businesses and government agencies shut down. Viruses typically evolve to spread more easily, but cause fewer deaths.
"We expect to see a milder disease over time," said Brian Labus, an infectious disease researcher at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.
A less deadly COVID-19 and easy access to vaccinations have led to fewer people wearing masks or taking other precautions against infection. "People are acting as they did before COVID," Labus said. "It's seen as kind of normal now."
Fear over COVID-19 has fallen because of vaccines and the virus's less virulent strains. But companies can't become lax if they want regulators and unions to see them as taking their responsibilities for employee health and safety seriously, experts said. Protecting workers from catching and spreading COVID-19 will require vigilance.
Antone Gonsalves is the news director for the Networking Media Group. He has deep and wide experience in tech journalism. Since the mid-1990s, he has worked for UBM's InformationWeek, TechWeb and Computer Reseller News. He has also written for Ziff Davis' PC Week, IDG's CSOonline and IBTMedia's CruxialCIO, and rounded all of that out by covering startups for Bloomberg News. He started his journalism career at United Press International, working as a reporter and editor in California, Texas, Kansas and Florida.