Executing an In-Person Conference During COVID-19: Experiences from Colorado

In-person meetings and conferences were paused in 2020, but innovation allowed for the Colorado Public Health Association to discover new opportunities to connect as colleagues.

Unprecedented year. Pivot. Challenge. Insert all of the 2020-2021 COVID-19 pandemic buzz words. Regardless of your word of choice, the past 18+ months have taken a toll on the public health profession as highlighted in the MMWR study published in early July this year.

In-person meetings and conferences were paused in 2020, but innovation allowed for us to discover new opportunities to connect as colleagues. For 2021, there was much uncertainty in the conference and event planning world. At the Colorado Public Health Association (CPHA), state affiliate of the American Public Health Association, our experience was no different.

Since 2005, CPHA has hosted an annual state conference called Public Health in the Rockies. Our annual conference aims to provide an opportunity for education, networking, and skill development of professionals in Colorado and neighboring regions. In 2020, we hosted our first virtual conference in partnership with the Wyoming Public Health Association with over 350 attendees, sponsors, and exhibitors, which was relatively small compared to our in-person event in 2019 of over 650 participants.

Over the past year, as we forged forward with planning the 2021 conference, there were many unknowns. What will be the new normal for professional conferences during and after COVID-19? Where would we be in terms of vaccination and case rates by the time of our scheduled conference in August? Could we meet safely in-person? What would that look like? Would people even want to attend an in-person conference?

These questions aside, we knew that public health as a whole needed a space for healing, support, and reinvigoration. More than ever, we face challenges in delivering safe, high-quality public health interventions in a just and equitable way. To do that, we need good evidence about what works, for whom, and under what circumstances. Public health practitioners and researchers continue to make that promise a reality from contact tracing and vaccine equity work to implementing prevention programs and epidemiological studies.

Given the attack on our profession and especially our local public health officials over the course of the pandemic, CPHA wanted to celebrate our peers’ efforts in protecting the safety and improving the health of our communities. Our colleagues have worked tirelessly to continue advancing health equity and improving outcomes for all populations through authentic engagement, education, policy making, and research. As such, the 2021 Conference Planning Committee voted to implement the 2021 Conference theme of Public Health HEROES: Health. Equity. Resiliency. Outcomes. Engagement. Safety. 

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Amidst living in pandemic times, we are pleased to have recently concluded a successful in-person conference in Keystone, Colorado, from August 25-27. We implemented many public health measures to improve the safety and comfort of all those in attendance. Below, we share some of our better practices that we hope will be useful for other individuals planning in-person or hybrid professional meetings and conferences.

COVID-19 Safety Protocols

First and foremost, we followed local, state, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidelines for large group gatherings. We were diligent in monitoring the COVID-19 pandemic and continuously adjusted our plans for the conference as the situation required. For example, we had previously recommended mask wearing indoors for vaccinated individuals and required mask wearing indoors for individuals unable to be vaccinated. We revised our requirements to mask wearing by all individuals, conference attendees and venue staff alike, inside the conference center after the July 27th recommendations by the CDC.

We further implemented different colored lanyards for attendee name badges to indicate their comfort level of interaction with others:

  • Red/Stop Sign – Please practice safe six
  • Yellow/Triangle Yield – Proceed with caution
  • Green/Square – Open to a handshake or hug

We wanted to allow for adequate spacing at the conference and thus capped conference registration to only 500 individuals. In terms of seating arrangements, we offered a variety of options including no distancing, 3-foot spacing, 6-foot spacing, and standing-room options. This setup was made available in the plenary sessions at the General Ballroom and in concurrent breakout sessions, including skill-building workshops. We also capped attendance at each concurrent breakout session to 65 individuals, and most skill-building workshops were capped at 100 individuals.

We offered sanitizing stations at core areas of the conference center outside the General Ballroom. We also provided hand sanitizer and sanitizing wipes in each breakout room.

Breakfast, lunch, and light reception were covered under the conference registration fee. Breakfast was made available in bags where attendees were offered one of a few options served by an attendant, while lunch was a fully boxed option. We encouraged attendees to take their meals outdoors as there were ample tables and chairs available outside on the venue’s terraces. Light hors d’oeuvres provided at our Ignite Presentation & Awards Ceremony were offered by plate served by an attendant, rather than as a buffet option.

Finally, we required attestation of either full vaccination against COVID-19 or a recent negative COVID-19 test result. This attestation was implemented at conference check-in when signing the COVID-19 Liability Waiver & Attestation. Throughout the planning of these protocols, the 2021 Conference Planning Committee worked closely with local public health in Summit County to ensure that our protocols aligned with local county recommendations to reduce risks and execute an effective learning event.

Transparency and Integrity

We believe strongly in the importance of communicating our safety protocols and especially when our protocols are not being followed. One example is the communication sent out to all participants that explained the early departure of an exhibitor. The exhibitor adhered to the indoor masking requirement but had not attested because he did not meet the requirements. As such, we required the exhibitor to immediately end his participation in the conference. We further collaborated with local public health to ensure that the individual was contacted for an interview and tested. Rest assured, the individual tested negative and we sent an updated communication regarding his status.

Mental Health and Healing

We were intentional to integrate healing practices in our conference planning. We selected Opening and Closing Keynotes to focus on topics like anti-oppressive practices by fostering respect, humility, and collective healing as well as storytelling as a way to harness our fire within to reignite our passion for our work and the communities we serve. We offered early morning, mid-day, and afternoon wellness activities to disconnect from distractions and re-engage with ourselves, including guided breathwork, meditation, yoga and mindfulness, and outdoor activities like a 5K run/walk and hiking to connect with the great outdoors of Colorado.

While we recognize that not all individuals are comfortable or able to attend an in-person conference, we intended to offer a safe and inclusive space for those who are able. For us in Colorado, we continue to believe that an in-person conference provides the best opportunity to engage others and learn, but only safely. Together, the public health community can continue to exemplify methods of disease risk reduction that lead the way in our communities.

Venice Ng Williams, PhD, MPH, is an Assistant Professor at the University of Colorado’s Prevention Research Center for Family & Child Health, focused on public health systems research. Dr. Williams served as the Director of the 2021 Public Health in the Rockies Conference and was a board member of Colorado Public Health Association from 2019-2021.

Heather Weir, MPH, is the Director of Strategy, Performance and Administration at the Colorado Governor Offie of Information Technology. She served as the Associate Director of the 2021 Public Health in the Rockies Conference and is leading the planning of the 2022 Conference as Director. Heather is currently in the second year of her two-year term on the Colorado Public Health Association board.

Dot Miller, CAE, is the CEO of The Solution, association management company that supports the administrative needs of the Colorado Public Health Association. Dot serves as the conference manager for the Public Health in the Rockies Conference. She also serves as the Mayor Pro Tem on the Arvada City Council in Colorado.

Jason Vitello, MSW, is the Behavioral Health Coordinator at Denver Public Health, an adjunct professor at the University Of Denver Graduate School Of Social Work, and a community activist. He founded the Colorado Public Health Association’s Health Equity Coalition, was elected as the first Health Equity Director, and currently serves as the President of the Colorado Public Health Association.

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