Disease detectives at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are on the case of a new outbreak of COVID-19—one at their own conference, which sickened about 35 attendees Tuesday.
Last week, the CDC hosted the 2023 Epidemic Intelligence Service (EIS) Conference in Atlanta, the first time the conference has been held in person since 2019. The annual event, which dates back seven decades, is entirely virtual. last year and was canceled entirely in 2020 and 2021 as EIS officials were overwhelmed by the response to the pandemic.
“The COVID-19 pandemic has been difficult for everyone and especially for our public health workforce. … We are grateful to have you back with us at the EIS conference,” EIS leaders wrote in this year’s preface . conference agendacelebrating the return of personal gatherings.
But signs of trouble quickly emerged. Several attendees reportedly tested positive during the conference, which ran from Monday, April 24 to Thursday, April 27, and drew approximately 2,000 participants. Some told The Washington Post that moderators at the conference warned multiple times about positive cases. CDC spokeswoman Kristen Nordlund told Ars in an email that EIS leaders mentioned the cases at the closing session of the conference. Conference leaders also canceled an in-person training, emailed all officials with current CDC guidance, and offered to extend hotel stays of sick attendees who needed to be isolated, according to in the Post.
On Friday, April 28, a CDC branch chief emailed staff about a possible outbreak. The email, obtained by the Post, reads: “We are informing you that several people who attended the EIS Conference have tested positive for COVID-19,” The email said at least one person at a recruiting event on Wednesday the tested positive.
As of Tuesday, May 2, the CDC had identified about 35 attendees who had tested positive, Nordlund told Ars. He added that everyone the CDC knows who tested positive is now isolating at home and monitoring symptoms.
“CDC is working with the Georgia Department of Health to conduct a rapid epidemiological assessment of confirmed cases of COVID-19 that appear to be connected to the 2023 EIS Conference to determine transmission patterns during this phase of the COVID-19 pandemic. ,” Nordlund wrote in an email to Ars. He told the Post that such an investigation could help refine “future public health guidance as we move out of the public health emergency and into the next phase of tracking and responding to COVID-19.”
The conference followed current CDC guidance, Nordlund told Ars, and “many conference attendees chose to wear masks.”
“Whenever there are large gatherings, especially indoors, such as at a conference, there is a possibility of the spread of COVID-19, even during periods of low community transmission,” he added.
The Post reported that other attendees, however, did not wear masks, social distance, or take other precautions to prevent the spread of COVID-19 during the event, even though they were all likely to be up to date on their vaccinations.
The CDC’s outbreak comes as official case numbers are among the lowest recorded since the pandemic began, but tracking and reporting of cases has fallen sharply. While the virus still kills more than 250 people a day in the US, especially the elderlyand millions prospered long COVID, many Americans have moved on from the pandemic and no longer regard COVID-19 as an immediate threat. The federal pandemic response is also being finalized, with the public health emergency set to be lifted next week. However, the possibility of such outbreaks remains, and the virus continues to evolve, with the latest omicron subvariants XBB.1.5, now dominating the entire country, and XBB.1.16 gaining strength.
“CDC continues to recommend that everyone six months of age and older stay up-to-date on all COVID-19 vaccines, including an updated vaccine,” Nordlund concluded in his email to Ars. “The COVID-19 vaccines are effective in protecting people from developing serious illness, hospitalization, and death.”