HIMSS20 organizers step up on-site preparedness for coronavirus as major exhibitors back out

The Healthcare Information and Management Systems Society (HIMSS) Conference is proceeding as planned, for now.

But HIMSS20 will look a little different than previous conferences. There will be no handshakes, for one, as the organizers have declared it a handshake-free meeting. (HIMSS encourages the elbow tap.)

There will also be a lot more hand sanitizer stations throughout the conference. Disposable, disinfectant wipes will be provided, along with medical-grade face masks for any attendee who asks for one at a HIMSS information booth.

Screening procedures established by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also will be conducted on-site throughout the conference.

It's part of HIMSS organizers' efforts for on-site preparedness in response to the ongoing spread of the virus known as COVID-19.

Despite the efforts, several large companies have decided not to attend. CNBC reported Tuesday that Amazon, Intel and Salesforce have backed out of HIMSS20. Cisco also announced it was pulling out of the conference on its website over the weekend. Many companies have restricted international travel, so employees based outside the U.S. likely won't be able to attend.

Karen Groppe, HIMSS senior director of strategic communications, told FierceHealthcare Tuesday that some exhibitors have pulled their companies off the exhibitor floor but are maintaining speaking engagements and meetings at the conference.

As of Tuesday, 36,759 people have registered for the conference, with 1,000 of those registrations received in the past two days, Groppe said. There are currently 1,315 exhibitors slated to attend. The conference also announced this week plans to have President Donald Trump speak about interoperability on Monday.

HIMSS has reported a 3% cancellation rate among registrants as of Tuesday.

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As part of organizers' preparedness plans, there will be a bigger presence of medical support, including three medical offices on-site at the Orange County Convention Center. One of the medical offices will be dedicated to addressing flu-like symptoms and will be staffed by a trained medical professional who will have direct access to the Florida Department of Health and an epidemiologist should an attendee appear at risk of infection.

HIMSS also is working with Orlando Health and Dr. Phillips Hospital to provide extra medical support, including screening protocols for EMTs and nurses on-site and telehealth access to ER physicians to host virtual visits as necessary.

If screening reveals an elevated risk for an attendee, the person will be isolated immediately to prevent exposure to conference participants, HIMSS officials said. 

The organization announced yesterday that it set up a medical advisory board, which includes epidemiologists, to evaluate the situation, help the organization make evidence-based decisions and advise on-site preparedness for the coronavirus. Those medical professionals, along with HIMSS senior leaders, are evaluating the evolving COVID-19 outbreak on a day-to-day and even hour-by-hour basis, Groppe told FierceHealthcare.

"They are evaluating the situation and looking at data from the Florida Department of Health," Groppe said.

She added, "We’re a healthcare community. Our members are on the front lines of healthcare and they know how to practice good hygiene."

Still, HIMSS organizers have faced mounting criticism on social media for going ahead with the conference under the shadow of pandemic fears from COVID-19. Some attendees have complained that HIMSS is not communicating quickly enough about the evolving situation.

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HIMSS organizers, in consultation with the medical panel, are making deliberately careful decisions, she said.

"We are being as smart as possible, and we are being slow because we want to be accurate. This is uncharted waters," she said.

In the U.S., most medical conferences are moving forward as planned—at least for now. According to a list compiled by Medscape, nine medical conferences are proceeding as scheduled.

One conference of 10,000 attendees, the American Physical Society annual meeting, which was scheduled for March 2-6 in Denver, was canceled the day before the meeting started. And it points to the "rapidly escalating health concerns" that all conference organizers must grapple with.