Five emergency room doctors and medical school professors who attended an industry conference in New York City last week have tested positive for COVID-19, organizers told BuzzFeed News.
Around 1,300 physicians and educators from at least 34 states, as well as Canada, attended the assembly, which was organized by the Council of Residency Directors (CORD) in Emergency Medicine and ran from March 8 to 11. The five infected doctors are from California, Texas, Michigan, and Tennessee.
“We have notified all of our attendees and the appropriate health authorities,” DeAnna McNett, CORD’s executive director, told BuzzFeed News. “The affected institutions are also aware and will be following their internal guidelines and protocols related to COVID-19 cases in their workforce. We have also notified the Hilton Hotel management team.”
The possibility that hundreds of emergency room doctors at the conference were exposed to the virus was first revealed when BuzzFeed News reported that a San Francisco doctor who made public his diagnoses had attended the conference. That doctor, Rosny Daniel, who works in the emergency room of the University of California San Francisco hospital, was present at the conference from March 8 to March 10, flew home March 11, began feeling symptoms the night of March 12, and was tested the following day, before receiving his diagnosis 24 hours later, on Saturday, March 14. The following day, he announced he had contracted the disease in a Medium post.
Like many in attendance, Daniel had treated patients for weeks since the start of the coronavirus outbreak in the US. He wore gloves, face masks, and other protective clothing — as did his patients at UCSF. Due to the limited availability of COVID-19 tests in the US, few of Daniel’s patients were tested for the virus, and none of them were diagnosed as positive, he said. Whether Daniel and the four other doctors caught the virus at the conference, from their hospital work, or via another source is nearly impossible to trace.
“I have been told that everyone who has confirmed positive were exposed to the virus at their institutions prior to traveling to CORD,” McNett said. “It is important to note that none of the confirmed positive attendees were symptomatic during the dates of the conference. As the CDC notes in their advisory, this would be classified as a low risk exposure.”
In the lead-up to the start date, conference organizers acknowledged the possible risk of holding the gathering amid a growing pandemic. In a “coronavirus update” posted to its website ahead of the meeting, they wrote, “In this time of public uncertainty and fear, it is especially important for emergency physicians to be seen as leaders and advocates for our patients, so CORD has no intention of canceling Academic Assembly at this time.”
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Organizers set up handwashing stations and offered copious hand sanitizer gel during the conference. As of March 8, around 500 known positive COVID-19 cases had been reported in the US, a number that had risen quickly by the middle of the week.
“Best practices and recommendations for everyone has changed significantly since the beginning of our conference,” McNett said. “Since the end of the meeting, we have seen a dramatic response to COVID-19 on both a state and national level. As more and more individuals in the country test positive (including attendees of CORDAA) our goal is to keep our attendees and members informed of the evolving situation. Moving forward we urge surveillance and caution for our attendees, we have asked our staff to self-quarantine and work from home, and we are assisting with contact tracing as much as possible.”