After an initial burst of optimism earlier this year, some health care organizations are having second thoughts about large in-person events for the remainder of 2021 and the start of the new year. However, some groups including the 340B Coalition are planning for in-person or hybrid events with the option of pivoting to the completely virtual option. Earlier this year, health care trade groups were excitedly preparing for the return of both small and large in-person conferences as well as hybrid events.
With attitudes toward the dangers of COVID-19 varying significantly across the U.S., some conference organizers are carefully gauging the overall attitude of would-be attendees before they decide how to proceed. They face a difficult tight-rope walk, balancing the concerns of its members/attendees with the fact that conferences often generate millions of dollars in revenue and help the organizations running them remain in strong financial health. They also don’t want to be perceived as insensitive to the current crisis and are aware that many organizations have imposed travel freezes.
340B Coalition Surveying Past Attendees
The 340B Coalition, an umbrella organization of a dozen trade groups representing 340B providers, recently sent an email to previous conference attendees surveying their thoughts about its 2022 winter conference. It is scheduled to kick off in San Diego on Jan. 31 and was promoted during its July virtual conference. The Coalition has not been able to hold an in-person event since its meeting in San Diego in February 2020.
“Please provide feedback on how comfortable you are attending an in-person conference within the next year and what safety protocols you would like to see implemented,” the preface to the survey begins. The survey itself is comprised of numerous multiple-choice questions, including the likelihood of attending the conference in person; their likelihood of attendance if it is a hybrid event, and any institutional or personal barriers that might prevent them from participating.
A spokesperson for 340B Health, which plays a key role in operating the Coalition conference, declined to discuss the survey or the decision-making process for the upcoming event. The National Association of Community Health Centers (NACHC) conducted its annual Community Health Institute summer event in a hybrid format in August. At the Orlando, Florida-based conference venue, attendees had to wear masks but did not have to be vaccinated. They also had the option of wearing color-coded badge ribbons that included red (no contact or social distancing), yellow (elbow bumps) to green (handshakes permitted).
Tara Plese, vice president of external communications for the Arizona Alliance for Community Health Centers, was vaccinated against COVID-19 and attended in person. And while she opted for a green ribbon, she remained uneasy throughout the conference.
“I was very apprehensive, primarily because it was in Florida, and I think of Florida as being one of those COVID states, discounting any kind of mandates,” she said.
She estimated that the conference had about half of its normal attendance, and most opted for social distancing during sessions. “A lot of people were signed on virtually,” she said.
NACHC spokesperson Amy Simmons told 340B Report that the conference attracted 1,750 attendees this year, about half of whom attended in person. The 2019 conference – the last before the pandemic struck – attracted 2,100 in-person attendees.
Simmons also noted that many attendees of last month’s conference who initially planned to be there in person switched to the virtual option late in the process.
“The Delta variant rise, re-instated employer travel restrictions and concerns about Florida’s extreme response against COVID safety protocols led to a few hundred attendees changing their participation from in-person to virtual,” Simmons said.
NACHC has responded further to that unease. While its financial/operations management/IT (FOMIT) conference in Las Vegas next month is slated to be hybrid, the organization recently switched its primary care association and health center controlled network (PCA & HCCN) conference to a virtual event only. That conference was originally scheduled to take place in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.
“Chair Mike Holmes and I have consulted regarding the current situation in Florida, and the comparative costs of the in-person, hybrid, and virtual platforms. Based on all the factors considered, the decision has been made to shift to an entirely virtual conference,” NACHC CEO Tom Van Coverden said in a message posted on the conference page.
New Vaccination Requirements
Moreover, the FOMIT conference and all other in-person events for the time being will require all attendees, vendors and staff to be vaccinated against COVID-19, according to Simmons.
Simmons said that the FOMIT conference is expected to attract 400 to 450 in-person attendees, with another 100 to 150 participating virtually. Those numbers are similar to those who attended the in-person 2019 event, she added.
The American Society of Health System Pharmacists (ASHP) also recently decided to switch both its pharmacy leaders conference and its highly-attended Midyear meeting from in-person to virtual. “As we continue to evaluate current COVID-19 trends, driven primarily by the Delta variant, we determined that holding virtual events for the remainder of this year is in the best interest of our attendees, speakers, exhibitors, and staff,” ASHP said in a statement provided to 340B Report. “Doing so will also help minimize the uncertainty and concern around traveling and attending in-person events during the ongoing pandemic.”
According to an ASHP spokesperson, the Midyear meeting is the largest international gathering of pharmacists. Its 2020 virtual event drew 27,000 attendees. That’s more than its last in-person event in 2019, which drew 26,000.
“Making Responsible Choices”
ASHP also noted the difficult choices trade organizations face when it comes to conferences. While scaling them back risks a huge financial fallout, many groups feel they have no choice. “As a leading national healthcare organization, ASHP must continue to demonstrate leadership in making responsible choices to ensure the health and safety of our staff, members, their families, patients, and colleagues,” the organization told 340B Report.
Another influential health care trade organization with a large number of 340B providers – America’s Essential Hospitals – is taking a similarly measured approach. It is currently hosting virtual-only events, although that may eventually change. “While we hope to return to in-person events in 2022, we will monitor the pandemic and revisit our plans as we get closer to event dates,” said Ashley McMaster, America’s Essential Hospitals’ vice president of membership and development. Ultimately, we will do whatever is in the best interests of the health and safety of our attendees and staff.”
The American Hospital Association is organizing or sponsoring a mix of virtual and in-person events, according to its events calendar. “We continue to be guided by scientific guidelines and recommendations to ensure that hospital leaders receive the education and programming options that best fit what is needed,” the AHA said in a statement. “For events, many factors are considered but at the forefront of every decision is ensuring the safety of our staff and attendees.”