If you have access to the internet or watch TV, you’ve probably heard people talking about “superspreader events”. The term is as cringeworthy as it sounds: It describes events in which just one infected person spreads the respiratory virus to dozens of other people at the same event.
How many cases constitute a superspreader event? According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there is no set number. Any event in which one person spreads the virus to multiple other guests is considered a superspreader by the CDC. It can be a large event of 100 people or a small gathering with just fifteen people or less. Not to state the obvious, but COVID-19 is highly contagious, and it can be difficult to remain 6 feet apart from other guests. Not surprisingly, this kind of spread has been commonly linked to gatherings where social distancing has been compromised. Events such as parties, weddings, or church gatherings are among the top of the list.
A Not So Shining Example
Most infamously, President Trump and first lady Melania Trump contracted COVID-19 after attending the White House Rose Garden for a ceremony to announce former Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett. Guests at the Sept. 26th event notoriously failed to wear masks, as noted by Dr. Anthony Fauci. The event was also notably crowded and few, if any, guests were social distancing. When a large number of guests later tested positive for the virus, it was unfortunate- but not surprising.
Maine and Long Island Weddings Sound Bells of Alarm
An indoor wedding in Maine has been linked to a whopping 270 or more cases. Sadly, eight deaths were reportedly connected to this wedding. State guidelines prohibit events with more than 50 guests, but this wedding hosted 65. By the last week in August, 53 cases of COVID-19 were traced to the wedding; later that week, 147 Maine residents who had attended the wedding or acquired secondhand infections had tested positive.
During a press briefing, Maine CDC director Dr. Nirav Shah reminded the public that one outbreak often leads to several more, particularly in a close geographic area. In a similar instance, a Long Island couple's wedding became a superspreader event when 41 guests later tested positive. The superspreader resulted in a 159-person quarantine, and the venue lost its liquor license. Having violated the state’s 50-person social distancing order for non-essential events, the venue faced up to $30,000 in fines. As if that news isn’t bad enough, they were slapped with an extra $2,000 fine for violating a sanitation code at the event.
New Orleans Swingers Event Naughtier than Nice
Not only were people risking outbreaks to get married, but some risked it in the name of polyamory. The Naughty in N'awlins event, a swingers convention in New Orleans, resulted in at least 41 positive cases. (Sexy, huh?) But this case is notable because it became a superspreader despite the exceptional safety precautions taken to prevent the spread of disease. According to Naughty Events owner Bob Hannaford, the check-in process included temperature checks, social distancing, and sanitizing measures. Naughty Events even asked guests to undergo excessive testing. Guests who had antibodies and those who had recently tested positive were issued different color wristbands. Still, guests were encouraged but not required to be tested.
The event, which turned out to be naughtier than nice in more ways than one, didn’t help Louisiana’s track record for COVID safety. According to the John Hopkins University, as of December, Louisiana accounted for 232, 414 of the U.S.’s 13, 580, 941 coronavirus cases- and 6,420 of its 268, 880 coronavirus-related deaths.
Biogen Conference Spreads More than Facts
If we wouldn’t risk it all in the name of love (or fun), should we risk spreading the virus for science? The concept seems counterproductive, but a February indoor conference for the biotechnology firm Biogen became a massive superspreader. The Boston conference resulted in more than 90 cases from guests and people associated with the event. Recent research shows that the Biogen conference may have led to 20,000 positive cases in the greater Boston area.
The Future of In-Person Events
What do event organizers need to feel confident about creating safe events? Research shows that 40% of event profs rank a vaccine as the number one factor out of eight that would affect a return to in-person events. So when Pfizer announced that its vaccine candidate is 90% effective, the industry got excited. For once, something other than the virus was spreading- hope was, too.
After the vaccine’s 90 percent effectiveness was announced, Eventbrite went up 27 percent and Informa is up 21 percent. Wall Street had a surprisingly successful November, which hints at vaccine-related optimism, too.
As if to underline this hope for in-person events, Zoom dropped 12 percent in the last several months. Coincidence? We think not. It’s much more likely that event organizers are feeling more positive about investing in the future of events. More evidence of this is highlighted by industry and tech leaders’ efforts to make in-person events safe again.
Ticketmaster’s Innovation May Make Events Safer
The new vaccine’s projected 90% effectiveness rate has given many people hope about returning to in-person events within the year. But it won’t be mandatory, and Ticketmaster has been exploring the possibility of onsite testing. If this optional feature is developed, it would screen for coronavirus testing and vaccination. Just having knowledge of who has recently tested negative- and who has received the vaccine- could limit the attendance of people who are not in compliance with safety regulations.
The aim of the feature would not be to force anyone to be tested or vaccinated. It would, however, provide a way to verify attendees’ health records. Based on the information gleaned from this process, event creators would be responsible for deciding who is permitted to attend the event. The feature could provide widespread incentive for the enforcement of adequate safety precautions that are not in place now.
Since superspreader events are the result of just one infected person, they’re difficult to avoid. Even with extraordinary safety precautions, which not everyone will take, the return to in-person events poses the risk of massive outbreaks. While the vaccine has offered the industry some hope, which seems viable, there is still a long way to go before events are safe again. Event organizers who do not have the option to go switch to a virtual platform are taking severe losses. These losses are not to be underestimated or overlooked; it is imperative that we find a way to enable safe events. We have yet to do so, but thanks to some innovators with clout, there is hope on the horizon. It’s a long journey, but we’ll keep you informed every step of the way.