by a collective of GCs concerned about COVID-19 risk at the 2022 AC
We urge the NSGC Board of Directors to change the mask recommendation for the 2022 Annual Conference (AC) to a requirement for attendees to wear high grade masks (N95, KN95, surgical).
We encourage our fellow genetic counselors to join us in advocating for high-grade masks at the AC by signing this petition and sharing it with their colleagues.
Below we share examples from recent conferences to demonstrate that without a masking requirement, the AC is likely to be a superspreader event and that masking requirements are indeed feasible at conferences of this type and size. We also lay out why this policy change is imperative given NSGC’s stated J.E.D.I. commitments and our profession’s responsibility to our attendees (including vendors, exhibitors, facility workers, and the press), patients, colleagues, families, the local community of Nashville, and society broadly.
Likelihood of high level of COVID-19 transmission at events like the AC
Unfortunately, even in 2022, conferences without masks continue to be superspreader events. The Society for Academic Emergency Medicine Conference had an estimated 18-67% of its ~3000 attendees contract COVID-19 at their May 2022 conference. This conference required vaccination but not masks. A July 2022 meeting of IT developers had at least 50% of attendees test positive for COVID-19 after the conference. That meeting required both vaccination and pre-conference testing, but not masking (same as the policies proposed for the 2022 AC). This example shows that transmission rates can still be high even with the policies proposed for the AC.
In contrast, the 2022 Academic Surgical Congress required high-grade masks (N95, KN95, surgical) and far fewer attendees contracted COVID-19. In a recent paper Silver et al. (2022) report that 1.8% of in-person attendees at this conference tested positive for COVID-19 after the meeting, a rate that is both markedly lower than the unmasked conferences mentioned above and similar to the rate among remote attendees (1.5%). It is notable that this paper came out after the Board made decisions about AC policies, which further prompts the need for re-assessment of those policies.
NSGC staff have shared that they hope that attendees will heed the recommendation to wear masks. However, rates of masking at conferences with a recommendation as opposed to a requirement suggest that many will not, as does an informal poll in which 30% of respondents who plan to attend the AC in person said they would not wear a mask under the currently proposed policies.
Feasibility of mask mandates
It is notable that many recent in-person medical conferences have required masks and had a high rate of masking compliance. This suggests that a mask mandate is indeed feasible and also that masking rates are higher with a mandate than a recommendation. In addition to the Academic Surgical Congress discussed above,the Heart Rhythm Society and American Academy of Neurology 2022 meetings are notable examples. Both required masking. Genetic counselors who attended these meetings report that compliance was very high and that security guards and conference staff provided cordial reminders to mask when they were already interacting with attendees, such as at entry points. This suggests that a high rate of masking can be achieved when a mask mandate is coupled with a minimal level of additional work from existing conference staff. Further, the Heart Rhythm Society registration page informed potential attendees in advance of requirements, including mandatory masking, and asked that individuals who could not meet those requirements attend remotely. Within the genetic counseling profession, the Southern California Genetic Counselors’ 2022 conference is an example of another recent meeting that required masking and had very high compliance. If these societies were able to implement a mask mandate and achieve a high level of compliance, then so can NSGC.
Lastly, many upcoming conferences are requiring masks, most notably this includes the American Public Health Association Annual Meeting.
NSGC has made significant strides in recent years in recognizing the need for greater equity and inclusion within the society. However, opting for a mask recommendation over a mask mandate is counter to the society’s stated J.E.D.I. goals. Specifically, by not including this feasible and highly effective mitigation strategy, NSGC has rendered in-person attendance at the AC out of reach to attendees who are at high risk for COVID-19 complications, or who live with someone who is. This policy choice disproportionately harms disabled individuals. In-person attendance at the AC offers many more choices for educational talks and provides access to additional networking opportunities, pre-conference symposia, and sponsored sessions. In the same informal poll referenced above, 11.5% stated they would change from remote to in-person attendance if masks were required.
Our collective responsibility
As both a professional society and a collective of healthcare providers and individuals, we have a responsibility to minimize the risk of transmission at our Annual Conference. So much so that one group of experts titled their article on this topic “The irony — and ignominy — of medical conferences as superspreader events.” To abide by our duties as healthcare providers and our responsibilities to our patients, we must do whatever we can to save lives and prevent long COVID-related disability by minimizing the number of attendees who bring COVID-19 home to their families, communities, clinics, and workplaces. Not taking that step would be against the values of care and respect for our patients’ welfare that are the foundation of our Code of Ethics.
Clearer communication of rationale for policy choices and risks to attendees
Lastly, we urge the Board to provide clearer communication on COVID-19 policies for the AC, even if they do not adopt a mask mandate. Communication from NSGC to date does not provide a rationale for the chosen policies or clarity on the process for selecting those policies, nor does it communicate where the current policies may cause significant risk to attendees. The risk of attending should not be left to attendees to discern. As a profession that facilitates and is committed to informed choice, we owe it to each other to help provide accurate and up-to-date information on the risks of conference attendance, especially given that such information is not readily provided from sources most attendees would encounter.