Living and Working in the Era of COVID-19

William B. Coleman, PhD
Executive Officer

A little over two weeks ago, on Friday, March 6th, the Meeting Planners and Executive Officers of the cooperating Societies (AAA, APS, ASBMB, ASPET, and ASIP) reluctantly announced the cancellation of the Experimental Biology 2020 meeting that was scheduled for early April in San Diego, CA. The meeting was cancelled due to concerns over the rapid spread of the COVID-19 virus. At that time, there were few cases in San Diego, but developments from across the nation and globe dictated our decision. We knew that our members from other countries would have difficulty attending the meeting, and daily changes in international travel alerts and bans made it clear that many/most of our international members would be prohibited from traveling to the United States. Furthermore, travel bans imposed by hospitals and medical centers, academic institutions, research organizations, and industry, for physicians (in some cases) and all faculty/staff/students (in other cases) made it clear that the ASIP Annual Meeting would be significantly impacted. When we learned that some of our invited speakers local to San Diego were not being permitted to attend (to avoid large crowds), we knew that we had no choice other than to cancel the meeting. Our hope is that cancelling the meeting a month prior to its scheduled start would give our members time to cancel their travel arrangements and hotel accommodations without penalty. As you have been notified, registration fees will be refunded and abstracts will be published as planned.

Since March 6th (which feels like it was years ago), California declared a state of emergency (as have many other states), the President declared a national emergency, and a number of major cities and states are largely or completely shut down. During the same period of time, the number of cases of COVID-19 infection increased to over 43,925 cases nation-wide* (with >545 deaths recorded). With the rapidly changing landscape of the pandemic and the ultimate mandates against large and small gatherings, our meeting was destined to be cancelled. Given that the health and safety of our members is our major concern, cancellation of the Annual Meeting was and continues to be the right decision. We sincerely hope that all of our members – in the United States and abroad – will adhere to social distancing, respect the suggestions to isolate as much as possible, avoid exposure to COVID-19, and remain healthy. In particular we send well wishes to our members who work as physicians who risk exposure in the clinical setting and/or who are working overtime in hospital laboratories to provide critical molecular testing for patients. Thanks for doing this important work in your cities and communities. We also send well wishes to our members across the globe and hope that everyone is able to remain healthy, particularly our members in the hardest hit areas of United States, Europe, and Asia.

The New Normal
So, we find ourselves in an unprecedented time – as individuals and as a Society. Our collective hope is that this new normal is very temporary and does not repeat itself in the future. The Governor of Maryland has mandated that all non-essential businesses close, and so the ASIP office in Rockville is officially closed. However, ASIP staff members are working remotely and all Society operations are functioning at full capacity. We are dealing with the aftermath of the cancellation of the San Diego meeting, while moving forward with plans for our upcoming meeting in Boston which will be held in November of this year, as well as plans for next year’s Annual Meeting during Experimental Biology 2021 in Indianapolis, IN. We are available to assist members with any issues they may have, and the journal staff is working hard on the next issues of The American Journal of Pathology and The Journal of Molecular Diagnostics. We hope that our members will be able to maintain momentum in their own research programs during this time when laboratories are being forced to close temporarily. We certainly welcome manuscript submissions during this period of time when progress for individual investigators and their labs might be confined to writing up results that are already in hand. Rest assured our peer review network is working hard and reviews will be completed in a timely fashion.

Financial Consequences of the COVID-19 Pandemic
A frequently asked question following the cancellation of the Annual Meeting is “…what are the financial consequences of not holding the meeting?” At this point, we don’t know because we are working through cancellation of all the contracts and filing claims with our insurance broker. In an ideal world, our meeting insurance policy will make us whole. Time will certainly tell. It should be clear to everyone that the COVID-19 pandemic will be associated with great financial costs for all organizations, and the ASIP is no exception. The financial consequences of the pandemic will far exceed losses from the Annual Meeting. This is due to the recent significant downturn in the stock market which impacts our long-term investments/reserves. It will take many months to know if our short-term losses will become long-term losses in this regard. That said, we do not anticipate that COVID-19 pandemic-related financial losses will impact on the ability of the ASIP to continue operating “normally” (or as close to normal as possible under the current circumstances).

Beyond the Financial Costs of COVID-19
The greater cost of the COVID-19 pandemic-associated cancellation of our Annual Meeting for individual ASIP members and the Society as a whole is the loss of opportunity for the member-to-member interactions that occur in the unique atmosphere of the ASIP Annual Meeting. As we all know, at the Annual Meeting our members (senior leaders of the field of experimental pathology, mid-career scientists, newer investigators, and trainees) easily and naturally connect/engage to discuss research and to network. Hence, the Annual Meeting represents a few days of the year that we all value and anticipate. Like the members of our Society, the ASIP staff looks forward to interacting with our members during the meeting each year, to conduct face-to-face business with the ASIP Council, and to engage with members of our working committees. Whereas the staff meets through conference calls and video conferences with the Council and many of our Committees on a regular basis, face-to-face interactions during the Annual Meeting cannot be easily replaced by virtual meetings. With cancellation of the meeting, we also lost opportunities for our members to showcase their science through oral and poster presentations, to recognize trainee travel awardees and trainee meritorious awards (such as the Experimental Pathologist-in-Training award), and to highlight the research of our members receiving major meritorious awards (including the ASIP Rous-Whipple Award, the ASIP Outstanding Investigator Award, and others). For the ASIP, the Annual Meeting is not valued because it represents a source of revenue. Rather, the value of the Annual Meeting, first and foremost, is as a venue to facilitate critical member-to-member interactions in a setting conducive to fostering discussion, engagement, and networking. Hence, we look forward to our next opportunities to interact in a face-to-face manner.

On behalf of the ASIP membership, I would like to offer our sincere thanks to the Program Committee and representatives of various Scientific Interest Groups for assembling an exceptional scientific program for the Experimental Biology 2020 meeting. Likewise, I want to offer thanks to the members of the Committee for Career Development and Diversity (CCDD) and the Education Committee for enhancing the scientific program at EB2020 with career development and educational sessions that are focused on our trainees and young investigators. The members of these three committees worked for well over a year planning the ASIP program for San Diego. We are currently discussing which of these sessions we might carry forward into the Experimental Biology 2021 meeting in Indianapolis, IN. We anticipate that much of the 2020 program will be carried over with minimal modification. In addition, we are looking at the possibility of adding some additional (newly developed) programming to the 2021 schedule. Stay tuned.

In light of all this bad news, there is some good news for ASIP members. In November, we will gather at the Royal Sonesta in Boston for the 2020 PISA meeting. Wheras PISA is a smaller meeting that the Annual Meeting at Experimental Biology, this year’s PISA provides an opportunity for our to regain some of what was lost with the cancellation of EB2020. Therefore, we will declare that PISA2020 is this year’s ASIP Annual Meeting (to fulfill the obligation to hold a scientific meeting each year as dictated by the ASIP Bylaws). The scientific program for PISA2020 was set prior to the cancellation of the San Diego meeting. Hence, we will not be able to move scientific content from EB2020 into PISA2020. However, we will be adding four meritorious award lectures, a number of award presentations, the inaugural Women in Pathology networking/social event, and some necessary face-to-face business to the PISA2020 schedule. We are hopeful that many/most of our 2020 trainee travel awardees will be able to attend the PISA2020 meeting using their awards. The PISA2020 venue at the Royal Sonesta is ideal for a small meeting, but does have limited capacity. So, please stay tuned to announcements related to PISA2020 and be sure to register early to ensure your seat at the meeting.

Moving Forward
We are currently working to ensure that the ASIP membership continues to be well informed of Society activities and news. Please pay attention to your emails and our social media posts in this regard. Several important news items have been released in recent days, including the results of the 2020 Election and announcement of the 2021 Meritorious Awards. In the coming weeks, we anticipate release of a virtual presentation of the ASIP Gold-Headed Cane award to representatives of the University of California at San Diego on behalf of Dr. Marilyn Farquhar. We will also release the slides that were intended for the Business Meeting in San Diego to inform the membership of the major activities of the Society during the past year. As indicated above, the ASIP staff and committees continue to work hard to ensure that future face-to-face meetings will be valuable and successful. Please be sure to contact us if you have questions or concerns or need assistance of some kind. Most importantly, stay safe and healthy as the COVID-19 pandemic persists. We look forward to seeing everyone once the pandemic ends.

*I started composing this blog on Friday, March 20, and the first draft included a figure of about 16,000 as the reported number of cases in the United States. As I continued to work on this blog over the weekend, I have literally had to change this number by the hour as the number of infections appeared to increase exponentially. The final number reflected here was taken from CNN on Tuesday morning, March 24, 2020.