Omicron casts shadow over veterinary conferences

In-person meetings to convene in face of newly dominant variant

December 22, 2021 (published)
Source: Inspired by AdobeStock/anna42f
Art by Tamara Rees

Swift and disquieting surges of new COVID-19 cases, fueled in part by the highly contagious SARS-CoV-2 variant known as omicron, are provoking calls for greater vigilance in the United States, Europe and beyond.

Still, several prominent veterinary conferences planned for early next year are sticking with plans to meet in person, confident that protection protocols will help keep attendees safe.

Designated as a "variant of concern" by U.S. health authorities on Nov. 30, omicron is now the dominant strain in the country. Hospitals in certain areas are stretched thin, and the National Guard is helping with staff shortages. Mask mandates for indoor venues are popping up again. Sports events, theater performances and concerts have been canceled; universities have moved back online.

Experts predict the contagion will worsen as cold weather and the holiday season beget more indoor gatherings, while others caution that the virulence of omicron compared to other variants has yet to be fully determined.

The American Veterinary Medical Association has no immediate plans to cancel the in-person portion of its Veterinary Leadership Conference (VLC), according to AVMA spokesperson Michael San Filippo. The four-day event is slated for Jan. 6-9 in Chicago. Some education sessions will be available virtually.

In brief

"We are very excited to be hosting our first in-person VLC since 2020," San Filippo wrote in an email to the VIN News Service on Monday. "We have learned a lot over the past year and a half on how to keep attendees safe at events, and we are looking forward to getting back to doing what we do so well."

VLC attendees must wear masks and provide the AVMA with proof of vaccination or a recent negative COVID-19 test. The AVMA's requirements predate a mandate announced Tuesday by Chicago authorities, which requires people in the city to prove that they are vaccinated before heading into restaurants, ballrooms and other indoor spaces starting Jan. 3. 

The VLC had 550 registrants as of Monday morning, most of whom opted to attend in person, San Filippo said. Twenty-one signed up to attend virtually. "As part of our contingency planning, we built out a virtual platform so that we would be prepared to transition in the event of any developments that would make it inadvisable or unsafe in any way to hold an in-person meeting," he said.

Attendance is about 5% down from 2019, when the VLC last convened in Chicago in person.

Registration is nonrefundable; cancellations must be submitted in writing. Registrants unable to attend can listen to the virtual programming through February 2022.

The VMX Veterinary Meeting and Expo is set to kick off a week after the VLC, Jan. 15-19 in Orlando. VMX historically attracts more than 15,000 attendees, making it the largest show for veterinary professionals in the country.

All attendees will be required to wear masks regardless of vaccination status. Proof of vaccination or a negative COVID-19 test will not be required but are strongly encouraged. A directive in April from Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis bars businesses from requiring customers to prove their vaccination status.

Florida is one of 20 states that has banned vaccination requirements through executive orders or legislation, according to Ballotpedia, a nonpartisan online political encyclopedia. 

Robin Pence, a spokesperson for the North American Veterinary Community, the event's organizer, said in an email to VIN News last week that she expects upwards of 12,000 people to attend VMX in person, with another 2,000 virtual participants. "We have had a great response to date for VMX 2022 registrations," she said. "The event is nearing pre-pandemic levels with attendance less than 30% shy of our record high at VMX 2020." The show drew 18,000 people that year.

As of Dec. 1, registrants for the in-person event who cancel for any reason can transfer to virtual VMX but are ineligible for a refund. 

Pence said about 7,700 people attended the 2021 conference, which was postponed for five months, until June. Three thousand participants logged in remotely.

The Veterinary Information Network, an online community for the profession and parent of VIN News, has had a presence at VMX (and its precursor, the North American Veterinary Conference) every pre-COVID year since 1991. Dr. Paul Pion, co-founder and president of VIN, said the organization wanted to return this year, but uncertainties around traveling during a pandemic didn't allow for that.

"We wanted to get back toward normal. We wanted to get back to hanging out with and interacting with VINners and all our friends and colleagues," Pion said on Monday. But as the window for finalizing travel and shipping arrangements began to close, VIN decided to keep its events team home.

Pion said: "It doesn't feel right to be adding to the potential burden on our health care system, risk to our team and potential for spread among our colleagues by … mixing with colleagues from around the country — especially in a state so resistant to basic precautions."

Too soon to gather?

Even before omicron, the idea of attending in-person continuing education was off the table for some. Dr. J. Scott Weese, a zoonotic disease expert who heads infection control at the University of Guelph's veterinary teaching hospital in Ontario, keeps turning down invitations to speak at events.

"It's just too early," Weese said in an email to VIN News. "Omicron is highly transmissible, and we're heading into what may be the worst phase of the pandemic yet, frustrating as it is to acknowledge that."

Weese has been helping the Ontario government with its COVID-19 policies.

He said a key concern is that vaccination coverage is still "suboptimal" in most places, including in the U.S. "Compliance with basic public health measures is a major problem in some areas," he said. "The U.S. has some bad places for this, and those are sometimes conference hot spots."

He points out that conferences don't exist in a bubble. They usually require travel, staying in hotels and other opportunities for exposure.

Vaccine requirements also are not foolproof, he said, citing loopholes including too-liberal exemptions. "We've had issues with some MDs writing a lot in Ontario, and some have been stripped of their licenses for it," he said. "We've finally moved to a system that requires proper medical exemption (which is exceptionally rare) and a tamper-proof QR code passport (since fake certificates are an issue)."

Enforcement is the other side. "There are too many places that don't bother to check," Weese said, "and unvaccinated people get into a lot of places where they shouldn't."

A step back after a glimmer of hope

Dr. Keith Niesenbaum threaded the needle between spikes this fall. The Long Island veterinarian and his family were in what he calls "self-imposed lockdown" for most of the pandemic. They skipped theaters, movies, restaurants and socializing in groups.

But as the number of new COVID-19 cases ebbed during the summer in New York, Niesenbaum thought it might be time to see colleagues again. He made plans to go to New York Vet 2021 in early November. The national two-day veterinary conference at the Javits Center in Manhattan was the last meeting he had attended, in 2019, before the pandemic.

He was reassured by the Javits Center's requirement that attendees show that they are vaccinated and wear masks.

"That was as safe as it's going to get," he told himself. "I'll go. If I don't feel comfortable, I'll leave." With that plan, he attended. Everyone was masked, and "masked appropriately," he said. In lectures, he had an empty seat on either side of him.

"It was weird, and it was terrific," he said. He especially enjoyed socializing with old friends and colleagues over dinner in Manhattan restaurants, where proof of vaccination is also required. He looked at friends and thought: "Look at you, you have a face below your eyes."

Niesenbaum said he's glad he went, but some post-conference news gave him pause. More than a dozen attendees of an anime conference at the Javits Center, two weeks after New York Vet, reportedly tested positive for COVID-19. 

The infections were among the first-confirmed cases of omicron in the U.S.

March: in the air

Plans for the 37th World Veterinary Association Congress March 29-31 in Abu Dhabi are moving forward under a cloud of uncertainty.

"We are in the end of December, a little more than three months before the event," said WVA Executive Secretary Dr. Zeev Noga. "We are very much in the air. Nevertheless, we continue to organize the event as business as usual."

WVA is an organization representing more than 90 veterinary medical associations from around the world. The 2020 congress in New Zealand was pushed online, and the 2021 congress in Taiwan was postponed to 2023.

"At the end of October in Belgium where the WVA Secretariat is based, things were normal, and the congress was a sure thing," Noga said during a Zoom call. "Then, in less than one month, Belgium is under strict restrictions, and many countries in Europe are closed."

Working with their host organization in Abu Dhabi, WVA is preparing for a face-to-face event. Ninety percent of the 60 speakers are confirmed for in-person presentations, Noga said, but all content will be filmed. If, at the last moment, they aren't able to do the in-person part, all the presentations will be available online, Noga said.

Navigating an ever-changing pandemic requires a lot of additional work from WVA staff and members. The upside, Noga said, is that the pandemic has elevated public awareness of veterinarians who combat zoonotic disease and the role of global veterinary groups. What's more, virtual meetings have allowed WVA officials to attend conferences they might otherwise would have missed.

Still, Noga said some important nuances have been lost.

"I think many initiatives or great ideas come from talking in between the sessions — the small talk and the chatting and the coffee breaks and the lunches," he said. "You start to think about issues and common ideas. Then you start to develop the ideas. It all starts there."

At least three other national or international veterinary organizations are planning in-person events in March, including the Western Veterinary Conference, a hybrid meeting March 6-9 in Las Vegas. The conference drew around 16,000 people last year, right before the COVID-19 shutdown, according to organizers. At this time, there is no requirement for vaccination, although masks will be required for all guests and employees inside public spaces. Fully vaccinated guests of Mandalay Bay Resort and Casino, which is connected to the convention hall, are not required to wear masks.

The American Association of Veterinary Medical Colleges is scheduled to host the AAVMC Conference and Iverson Bell Symposium March 3-5 in Washington D.C. The 2020 event drew more than 300 educators, according to an AAVMC summary. There is an option to attend virtually. 

The British Small Animal Veterinary Association Congress is planned as a hybrid event March 24-26 in Manchester, England. In March 2020, BSAVA canceled its in-person congress and launched an on-demand event a few months later. The organization presented another virtual event in 2021. 

AAVMC and BSAVA event organizers were not able to answer VIN News questions about event plans or COVID-19-prevention protocols before publication time.

Small groups persevere

While large associations and organizations have staff members and technology partnerships to help them weather the challenges of the pandemic, smaller groups made their way with patience and grit.

The Greater Rockford Veterinary Medical Association is a 35-member group based in and around the unincorporated community of Rockford, Illinois, on the Wisconsin border. Before the pandemic, GRVMA met five evenings a year at a local restaurant for dinner, community and continuing education.

The meetings were always marketed as a chance to talk to other veterinarians in town, said Dr. Sarah Thurber, GRVMA secretary. "Apparently, the organization — before my time — started as the veterinarians in town … getting together for poker night."

The GRVMA also hosted an all-day event that typically attracted 85 to 100 people every October to a Shriner's event center.

All GRVMA gatherings were canceled at the start of the pandemic. Thurber said the group wasn't in a position to take meetings online. "We don't have a website on purpose," she said. "We just kind of stay under the radar." She faxes meeting notices. A few members still don't have their own emails. The idea of a Zoom meeting seemed inconceivable.

For 18 months, they didn't meet. Colleagues retired and moved away, some older members died, several clinics were purchased by corporations, Thurber said. Through all these transitions, there was no opportunity for colleagues to come together to commiserate, kibitz or share gossip.

The group did manage to meet in October during a lull in pandemic infections. Eighty people showed up. They sat at individual tables, each with its own boxed lunch. "It was wonderful," she said.

However, returning to regular evening meetings in a small restaurant was another matter. If all local veterinarians got in a room and contracted COVID-19, "we'd have to close all the clinics," Thurber said. "That's not very helpful."

So in November, GRVMA decided all 2022 evening meetings will take place over Zoom. During the past year and a half, most members learned how to participate in a video conference. Thurber learned the ropes meeting with her church and a hobby group via Zoom.

"We have 80-year-old people that have figured it out," she said. "I'm like, ‘OK, then you can, too, veterinarians.' "

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