The health care technology trade group HIMSS has canceled its annual conference for the first time in its nearly 60-year history over concerns about the rapid spread of Covid-19, erasing tens of millions of dollars in investment in the annual gathering planned for next week.
The leadership of the conference announced the decision Thurday, following a steady stream of cancellations by large exhibitors and increasingly urgent warnings from public health authorities about the threat posed by large gatherings.
“It is now clear that cancellation is unavoidable in order to meet HIMSS’ obligation to protect the health and safety of the global HIMSS community, employees and local residents, as well as for the healthcare providers tasked with keeping our U.S. and global communities healthy,” the organization wrote in a statement posted on its website.
The cancellation not only underscores the urgency of the threat posed by the coronavirus, but the increasing economic toll it is likely to take on the U.S. economy as it continues to spread. Technology companies invest millions of dollars to bring employees to HIMSS each year and build elaborate displays and demonstrations on its exhibit floor. The event also brings thousands of attendees from hospitals, government agencies, and other stakeholders in the nation’s $3.5 trillion health care industry.
The annual gathering typically brings more than 45,000 people to Orlando from more than 90 countries, and about 37,000 had registered this year. President Trump was scheduled to speak at the event Monday on his administration’s plans to increase data-sharing in the health care industry and make it easier for patients to get access to their medical records.
Over the last several days, the conference’s leadership has faced increasing criticism over plans to proceed with the conference despite the threat posed by the new coronavirus. A steady stream of companies had pulled out, including major exhibitors such as Amazon, Microsoft, and Intel. Google and Facebook have each issued directives for Seattle-based employees to stay at home due to the spread of Covid-19 in Washington state.
“We recognize all the hard work that so many have put into preparing for their presentations and panels that accompany every HIMSS conference,” said Hal Wolf, president and CEO of HIMSS. “Based on evaluation of evolving circumstances … it is clear that it would be an unacceptable risk to bring so many thousands of people together in Orlando next week.”
The statement cited the difficulty of assessing the risk to attendees and concerns about disruption to the health care system by having so many medical professionals leave their hospitals to attend the meeting.