Ultimately, the organizers of the United States Conference on HIV/AIDS (USCHA) ran out of viable options for hosting the largest annual HIV conference in the country as an in-person event. For weeks, as the delta variant of COVID surged and the prospects for any large in-person gatherings this fall diminished, officials at NMAC, which produces the massive event, knew their health-centered event must, above all, protect their attendees and follow the science.

And so, today NMAC announced the 2021 USCHA conference would become a virtual event, as was their 2020 conference (as well as another large conference produced by NMAC, the 2020 Biomedical HIV Prevention Summit).

NMAC’s statement read, in part:

“This is not the announcement we wanted to make,” said Paul Kawata, Executive Director of NMAC. “We were very hopeful that we could hold an in-person USCHA this year. However, the health and safety of our constituents must be our primary concern. The continued spread of the Delta variant and the data from both the Provincetown outbreak and the Berlin study about the impact of Covid on people living with HIV led us to this decision. We are as disappointed as everyone else by the need to make this decision, but we could not, in good conscience, potentially put attendees at risk of exposure.”

Clearly, when a national conference cancels its in-person program for two years, you know there’s some serious shit going down. The impact of the COVID pandemic is nothing less than society changing, apart from its staggering mortality rate and the tragedy it has inflicted on hundreds of thousands of families.

Within our HIV/AIDS advocacy community, USCHA has been an annual pilgrimage for many of us who find renewed energy being in each other’s company. Our Zoom meetings and events have been acceptable placeholders, but we have all begun to pine for the touch and feel of one another. As the pandemic began to wane in late spring, seeing each other, at long last, felt likely. NMAC had even branded the conference with a “homecoming” theme, playing off our shared anticipation. That theme, sadly and fittingly, has now been wiped from the USCHA site.

Personally, aside from the hundreds of necks I looked forward to hugging at USCHA, I had already brainstormed article ideas, shopped for new shoes, and even chose my costume for the Halloween party (they have a runway in that ballroom, people).  Then came delta. 

NMAC indicated it has been closely watching the status of the pandemic in these last weeks, and even considered having a vaccine mandate for attendees, but the acceleration of the delta variant clearly required more drastic action. (That said, shouldn’t a vaccine mandate be standard protocol for any HIV/AIDS conference or large event going forward?) 

USCHA isn’t canceled. The shortened virtual event will take place December 2-3 of this year. But we all know the difference, just as we know the withering participation levels of virtual events after we all spent a year being good sports with frustrating video technology and learning how to unmute ourselves (see important information below for those who are already registered or who wish to attend the virtual event).

It’s also worth noting that NMAC has now had to weather the cancellation of its last three conferences, which aren’t just important skills building events for our community. They also serve as enormous funding streams for NMAC. Whatever you might think of the heavily branded corporate, i.e. pharmaceutical presence at USCHA, the financial impact on NMAC has got to be significant.

“As you can imagine, ending an in-person conference creates financial issues,” NMAC head Paul Kawata told me via email. “Our insurance does not cover meetings that we cancel. Ideally, most attendees, exhibitors, and sponsors will continue to be part of the virtual meeting. USCHA and the Summit are two of our largest sources of annual income, so the loss of this revenue will have a short term impact on our finances and will require that we look back at our 2021 budget. While we are not in danger of staff layoffs or anything like that, we will have to look at current expenditures and see where we can make adjustments.”

The budget crunch NMAC faces is surely playing out across the country in the smaller community-based agencies the conference aims to serve, with fundraising at a standstill for the last year or more. When a big conference like USCHA is mounted in-person again, will those smaller organizations be able to afford to send anyone? This pandemic continues to trickle down in unexpected and deeply concerning ways.

If I have to urge you at this point to get vaccinated and follow the science, you’re probably reading the wrong blog. Instead, check out these articles on how to convince family or friends to get vaccinated — in a way that respects their hesitancy and maintains your sanity.

Please be well, my friends. 

Mark

Information for those who have already registered or who would like to attend the virtual event:

New registrations will continue to be accepted at https://uscha.life/. During the week of August 9, NMAC will send out an email from the registration portal to all registrants with instructions on transferring or cancelling your registration. If registrants have not received an email by August 13, they should contact the Conferences division at conferences@nmac.org. Refunds will be processed in 3-4 weeks.

The registration fee for the virtual USCHA is $295. NMAC will automatically refund the difference. If registrants do not wish to attend this year’s USCHA, they can either:

  • Option 1: Keep their registration to attend the virtual USCHA Conference. NMAC will refund the difference.
  • Option 2: Transfer registration to the 2022 USCHA in Puerto Rico.
  • Option 3: Cancel registration and get a full refund.
  • Option 4: Donate registration payment to NMAC.

If you need immediate assistance, please contact the Conferences Department at conferences@nmac.org.

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