As the Delta variant spreads, meeting planners are getting nervous again, as evidenced by the results of Northstar’s recent PULSE Survey: Seventy percent have grown less optimistic about the industry’s recovery since early July.
Regardless of the trajectory the Covid case surge takes over the coming weeks and months, says risk management expert Bruce McIndoe, we’ll be grappling with the pandemic for at least two more years. According to McIndoe, to move more swiftly into recovery mode, vaccination rates must be more than 90 percent and people should be wearing masks indoors, regardless of vaccination status.
Following are excerpts of the conversation I had with McIndoe for the latest episode of Eventful: The Podcast for Meeting Professionals, edited for clarity. In this Q&A, McIndoe projects the path of the virus, explains the health risks in scientific terms, and details how meeting and event planners can provide safer environments for participants.
Let’s talk about Covid... again. What are your near-term expectations?
I'll just warn you: Two years from now we will still be saying, “Let's talk about Covid.” But for now, we’re expecting with this rise in the Delta variant we'll hit peak over the next four to six weeks, and then it will precipitously decline, and the fourth wave will be behind us. So, you're looking at a couple of months at a minimum, because once it starts to drop it doesn't go right down to a baseline of zero. Of course, all of that is dependent on what people do.
We see mask mandates coming back in some places. Is that necessary?
Yes. We’re very concerned about schools opening and all this resistance to wearing masks. If everybody would wear a mask, we would be able to suppress the transmission. That's what the CDC just came out with, in a fumbling way. They said, “We need everybody to wear masks,” without making it clear why, and people rebelled — which some are going to do anyway no matter how clear it is. Now we have people saying, “Why do I need to wear a mask when I'm vaccinated?”
Why do people need masks if they’re vaccinated?
That's a loaded issue. People forget that the masks you wear, except for a respirator like an N-95, don't protect you — they protect others. This virus is very small, and it attaches to water droplets when you're speaking or yelling or singing. It can even attach itself to smoke and other particles. If you’re wearing a mask and you're infected, you’re not spewing those viruses out into the air or into somebody’s face. If you wear an N-95 that is properly fitted, that’s 95 percent protection, which is as good or better right now than the vaccines in protecting you from the Covid-19 Delta variant.
Should event planners be requiring everyone to wear masks?
Yes. Eventually at events we're going to have to deal with the haves and the have-nots — meaning vaccinated or unvaccinated. But now with Delta, that's almost a non-issue: Everybody needs to wear masks, whether they're vaccinated or not.
Are masks necessary in all group settings or just indoors?
Well, for vaccinated people, being outdoors is very low risk unless they’re in tightly congregated, larger groups. Otherwise, it’s low risk for the vaccinated not to wear masks outside. The problem is when you have unvaccinated people who basically discard their masks. They become a liability to everybody.
Is testing effective, particularly if a group includes unvaccinated attendees?
That’s the rub right now for organizations putting on conferences: They cannot trust people to do the right thing, and that puts the rest of the community at risk. Some events are conducting rapid antigen tests on-site, which is not all that useful except in identifying people who are symptomatic. Pre-event PCR testing is good but not foolproof.
Are a lot of people using fraudulent “proof” of vaccination?
That’s another problem. The number of fake documents flying around is just eye-popping. We’re seeing people using them for cruises and just about anything else. However, the mix of people who are going to go on a cruise vs. the mix of people that are going to attend SMU International this week, for example, are very different. I would expect high compliance with factual and truthful information from your professional population. But if somebody just really wants to go on a cruise, and they really are adamant about not getting vaccinated or not doing the testing, they can spend $25 and fake it.
Just over half of U.S. adults are fully vaccinated. How problematic is that?
It means this virus is not going away. Keep in mind, this is just the fourth wave. And as long as we have a reservoir of people who are unvaccinated, we have a breeding ground to spread the virus, and create new variants and new waves.
Do you expect new variants in the U.S.?
It doesn’t matter where a variant emerges on the planet, it’s eventually going to come to the developed countries in Europe and the U.S. and elsewhere. We've seen that with Peru, India, South Africa, the U.K. and so on because of global travel. Until vaccination is addressed globally, we're all at risk for the next variant.
What percentage of the population needs to be vaccinated for herd immunity?
Especially now, with Delta being so transmissive, if we could get to herd immunity we’d need to have 90 percent or higher vaccination rates. When we start getting to that level, Covid will be similar to other things we've dealt with that have just become endemic. It becomes an annual statistic.
Are better treatments on the horizon?
We already have vaccines that greatly reduce the severity of the illness. As we move through 2022, we'll see therapeutics that will minimize the death count of people infected with this virus. People will get very sick, but they won't die — at least not at the rate they’re dying now. Eventually the death rate will go so low that people are going to say the risk is no different than getting the flu and it will be true.
We hear a lot about “long Covid.” How prevalent is that?
The bad news, which is not getting much attention from the government or the media, is that between 15 and 30 percent of people who get Covid and recover have long-term health issues from this virus. I’ve been tracking statistics on this for the past 18 months. A big study done in the U.K. was just published a couple of weeks ago in The Lancet, showing data around cognitive decline. Basically, if you lose your sense of smell or taste from this virus, there’s a 20 to 30 percent chance you will have long-term cognitive health issues that mirror a similar decline as seen with Alzheimers.
I have a set of eight studies that I've been following that look at brain issues, major organ issues, heart, liver, kidneys, circulatory system issues, digestive system issues. Essentially, this is a blood-borne virus, and anywhere blood congregates becomes a target. This is why I've been telling my family since last summer when I started looking at all this data, “You don't want to take this casually. You really need to have your guard up all the time, because this is not a virus that you want to get.”
How do you keep your guard up?
I always wear a mask. I wear my N-95 faithfully in transportation and closed spaces. If I do go out to a restaurant, I always eat outside unless the restaurant is largely empty or in a well-ventilated area.
Why do you think there’s such strong anti-vax sentiment in the U.S.?
As we've seen with all the discourse around vax and non-vax, people believe what they want to believe, right? They don't care about the facts, or that 99 percent of people in the hospital who are dying from Covid are unvaccinated. They still can't wrap their heads around the fact that this means they should get vaccinated.
Risk perception in humans is really terrible, and that's been true long before Covid. Now people who are vaccinated feel like they're more invincible than they are. They don't understand — and don't really want to understand — the potential long-term health implications of Covid. They just feel like they can just do what they want to do. That’s a challenge, and planners are not going to change that; it’s baked into our personas as humans, for better or for worse.
How can we get humans to cooperate?
We need to keep talking about it. I was at an indoor dinner event recently, and I wore my mask except when I was eating. People were asking me, “Why are you doing that? Aren’t you vaccinated?” Then I would give them a five-minute dissertation on why it’s so important. I mean, is it really that difficult to just wear a mask when you're in the presence of others? No. I’d sooner do that than for the rest of my life deal with some lingering health problem.