What can we learn about event safety from ER doctors, Taylor Swift fans, and DC journalists?
Updated: Sep 17
The demise of the pandemic has been declared many times in the last two years. Unfortunately, for some individuals attending events in the last year, trying to celebrate their heroine, meeting with colleagues, or learning about new therapies have resulted in a preventable aerosolized illness that potentially ruined the next two weeks of their lives (or more).
The first event occurred last December 10 at the Metro Theater in Sydney, Australia. Eleven hundred people gathered at a “Red” party to commemorate the re-release of the Taylor Swift album “Red.” New South Wales, the territory including Sydney in Australia, had just relaxed COVID restrictions before the event. Of the 1100 attendees at the “Red party”, almost 10% tested positive for COVID within days. Six hundred others were later advised to be tested or quarantined.
Several months later, the infamous gathering of SAEM (Society of Academic Emergency Medicine) was held. Here, the world’s smartest ER doctors held a superspreader event disguised as a medical conference. The brain trust who organized this event did not require vaccination or testing among its 3000 attendees. As a result, an incalculable number potentially numbering hundreds of cases of COVID was spread at this event. To make matters even more frightening, the people who contracted COVID were not just random people working remotely. These individuals were ER doctors and their ancillary health colleagues whose daily lives entailed working in emergency rooms caring for and exposing potentially thousands of vulnerable patients. The aftermath of this event was critical to the organizers but somehow swept under the rug as no formal assessment of cases was performed.
About one month later, two technology conferences were held, one involving cybersecurity and the other high tech services. The cybersecurity conference, known as the RSA conference, became known as a major superspreader event. The RSAC Twitter poll revealed that 20% of attendees became positive for COVID. The high tech conference required vaccination, but did not test attendees for COVID, also creating a superspreader event. Later, 25% of attendees posted comments on a social news site that many of their colleagues tested positive for COVID.
Almost 3 years into the pandemic, events are no longer expected to be remote. Being hybrid for events is also not a current option for most organizations after 3 years of off-site meetings. As learned from these technology conferences, as well as the frequently mentioned Foreign Correspondents dinner, even some well-meaning precautions, if inadequate, can still lead to dangerous super spreader events that disrupt workflow and threaten lives.
The good news is that there are processes now for safer gatherings. The study of many events has given great insight into best practices. Learning how sports leagues and other organizations managed the pandemic has also revealed a great deal about COVID spread and risk. Based on these precedents, a newly formulated “best strategy” can be understood as a balance between testing and vaccinations.
Testing everyone in person prior to an event for COVID as close to the event as possible is far and away the best strategy to prevent infected individuals from attending an event. In conjunction with this, an up-to-date vaccination policy for all is also strongly recommended as it may affect masking and daily testing policies. For multi-day events, multiple tests at least every other day would also be preferred. Naturally, every COVID case cannot be preventable, but this type of caution will prevent spreading at the event itself where subsequent detail confirms that 20-25% of attendees eventually become positive.
Many apologists for using a “laissez-faire” approach at events try to diminish the impact of positive cases transmitted at the event. The argument that “no deaths occurred” from these events is delusionary and specious. Only an exhaustive analysis of all cases and their spreads with DNA verification to known contacts and many others could suffice to say whether the spread occurred or not. None of these events or others were appropriately studied in this manner to deem them “harmless cases.” Any COVID cases can yield potential calamitous exponential spread of COVID to friends, family, and co-workers of the afflicted individuals when they return home.
Events are complex and there are many ways an event can go wrong. Learning from the experience of the organizers of some super spreader events can help organizations develop a strong COVID prevention policy that will help minimize the likelihood of having these problems develop after their own events.