29 June 2022

AAS 240, COVID-19, and Safety Precautions for Conferences

Kevin Marvel

Kevin Marvel American Astronomical Society (AAS)

The AAS staff and attendees at our AAS 240 meeting have now returned home from Pasadena, simultaneously tired, talked out, and energized by our larger-than-normal summer conference in California. I and many people I spoke with were very glad to be back in person, and despite a few glitches, our hybrid conference also worked out well for those who attended virtually. We’re taking lessons learned from this meeting and factoring them into our planning for AAS 241 in Seattle and future meetings. Organizing both an in-person and an integrated virtual event remains much more challenging (and expensive!) than organizing one or the other alone. Over time, costs will come down as competition in the marketplace of vendors works its magic. In the meantime, we will economize where we can, but we will not sacrifice the scientific impact of our conference, to the best of our ability.

As AAS 240 attendees know, we had fairly strict safety requirements in place at the meeting to help ensure low spread of COVID-19 on-site. The last thing the Board wanted was for AAS 240 to go down in history as a super-spreader event, especially as the BA.4 and BA.5 variants were taking off in the US, which are both more contagious and less sensitive to antibodies produced from vaccination or recovery from illness. 

First and foremost, we required primary vaccination and boosters for all attendees, exhibitors, staff members, and — to the extent that we could — vendors and on-site support staff (within employment law limitations; we could not mandate center or hotel staff to be vaccinated). Although vaccination does help a bit with spread of the virus, its primary benefit is to ensure that most people who do contract the virus suffer only mild symptoms. The Board could not justify the risk of someone becoming seriously ill or dying from infection at our conference due to non-vaccination.

Second, we mandated mask-wearing at all times within our convention center space and rigorously enforced this requirement. Though vaccination largely prevents serious illness, we know that among our attendees — and their families, friends, and colleagues — are individuals with medical conditions or situations that put them at greater risk from infection or even prohibit them from receiving vaccinations. These members of the extended AAS community are highly vulnerable to serious outcomes from the virus, and uniform masking helps to protect them. AAS and security staff reminded people throughout the meeting to keep their masks on, and we were prepared to remove from the meeting anyone who did not comply with the masking requirement. Thankfully, we had nearly uniform compliance, and reminders for the few who let their masks slip were successful.

Third, we attempted to ensure that we had adequate ventilation and spacing where possible, especially during consumption of food and beverages. We distanced the front row of chairs from podiums in all conference rooms, made sure we had more than enough chairs to allow people to sit apart from others if they wanted, and worked with the venue to keep the ventilation systems functioning optimally and with high air flow throughout the meeting. All provision of food and beverages was accomplished with an eye toward limiting the chance of infection, both in how the food and drinks were served, and in the physical location of the event. To allow for people to eat and drink in the exhibit hall, we roped off a large area with broadly distributed seating where people could take their masks off briefly to consume food or beverages. The opening reception was outside (thank you, Pasadena June weather!), and the closing reception was in a well-ventilated space with far fewer attendees present.

Finally, we put numerous systems in place to monitor COVID-19 infections at the meeting and support those who became infected. We made tests available to anyone who felt ill or thought they may have had an exposure, and we delivered additional tests to some individuals so they could continue to test for an infection after an initial exposure. We initiated a rapid-response infection reporting system, relying on email that distributed to multiple high-level AAS staff. We monitored this email address by the minute and responded promptly when people reported an infection or exposure.

In some cases, we helped individuals seek different lodging arrangements with an eye toward keeping all attendees safe and healthy, and we provided deliveries of food or medicine if needed. We encouraged anyone with an infection to notify the local public health authorities via the CA Notify or iPhone exposure apps. For the few people who had to quarantine in place for multiple days before being able to travel, we stayed in touch with them and made sure they had the help they needed during that frustrating time.

So, with these measures in place, how did we do? In total we had 18 cases reported to us beginning on 12 June and continuing through 22 June, several days after the meeting concluded. Since symptoms appear 5–6 days post infection, only five of these cases are very likely to have been picked up at our conference or while travelling to it. Due to the uncertainty of the number of people that attendees interacted with outside of the meeting during this time, it is difficult to obtain a comparative picture of how this compares to local case counts — but we certainly were not a "super spreader" event by any means.

Time will tell what policies will be prudent to have in place for our January 2023 meeting in Seattle, but rest assured that the AAS Board of Trustees and your hard-working AAS staff will again do everything possible to ensure a safe, invigorating experience for all attendees, exhibitors, and supporting contractors.