Conference Coverage

Oncologists flock to Chicago for ASCO, after 2 years online


The biggest cancer conference in the world is back in person after 2 years online during the COVID pandemic. And it appears many are eager to attend the American Society of Clinical Oncology annual meeting in person now that they can.

By early May, ASCO already had 30,000 registrations, of which 80% were in person – there were 27,000 hotel reservations.

“That’s almost identical to where we were in terms of numbers in 2019 at the same point in time,” Julie Gralow, MD, chief medical officer at ASCO, said in an interview.

These figures, which are from May 11, are likely to increase. In past years, there has been an upswing in registrations right before the meeting starts.

The annual meeting begins on Friday, June 3, and runs until Tuesday, June 7. It will be held in Chicago, yet again, in the vast McCormick Place, sections of which were transformed into field hospital wards when the pandemic hit in 2020.

But the meeting will also continue to be transmitted virtually, as it has been for the past 2 years, for those not attending in person.

“I do think that the hybrid model will move forward,” Dr. Gralow said. “We can get a lot of attendees, especially from very distant places, who can’t travel, or can’t easily travel, and we have learned how to make that experience better for them as well.”

Attendees can also change their minds if, for example, rising numbers of COVID cases as the meeting nears put them off traveling. “We are allowing people to change to virtual. So I think there may be a little bit of that, depending on what happens to COVID in different parts of the world,” Dr. Gralow commented.

For those who do attend, the organization is “doing the best that we can to keep people safe,” said Dr. Gralow, who was previously a professor of global health and is now a breast medical oncologist and clinical trialist.

To attend in person, ASCO is mandating proof of vaccination (which in the United States means two doses of the COVID vaccine). “If you prove in advance that you are vaccinated, we will send you your badge, so you don’t have to stand in line,” she added.

“As far as masks go, we are saying right now that we are complying with Chicago’s rules, which mean there is no mandatory indoor masking,” she continued. “We are recommending masking because this is a group of physicians who treat immunocompromised patients. So we are recommending that.”

This stance has gotten some push-back on Twitter from both physicians and patient advocates, with some surprised that masking is not mandatory.

“I know that ‘mask-optional’ meetings mean most will omit masks; I literally just saw this at my last meeting as one of the few masked MDs,” commented radiation oncologist Fumiko Ladd Chino, MD. She appealed to the organizers with a plea: “There’s still time to change #ASCO22 policies. We’re in it for patient health.”

Patient advocate Manju George, MVSc, PhD, a rectal cancer survivor, was also campaigning for a change in policy by setting up a letter that others could sign, adding that “ASCO leadership is being flooded with pleads from concerned HCPs.”

When asked whether it was considering a change in mask policy, ASCO replied: “As far as health and safety go, the protocols we’ve put in place meet or exceed current [World Health Organization, [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and city of Chicago guidelines. ASCO is also closely coordinating with both the city and the convention center and we are actively monitoring local conditions.”

“To protect the health and safety of all meeting attendees, our protocols require attendees to be fully vaccinated and self-test negative for COVID-19 within 48 hours prior to their arrival at the meeting. In addition, we expect all attendees to be masked when indoors and are encouraging regular self-testing. We fully expect members of our community to do their part to help keep everyone safe, and we’re making it easy for attendees to comply with our policies by providing medical-grade masks as well as both rapid antigen and [polymerase chain reaction] COVID-19 tests,” the organization said.

There will also be a notification system so attendees can select how they identify for closeness, with red meaning stand back, no hugs, no handshakes; yellow signifying something more intermediate; and green signaling the person is okay with contact with a handshake or a hug. This system has already been used during smaller ASCO subspecialty meetings earlier this year, and feedback from delegates was positive, Dr. Gralow commented.


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