Annual NSF Legionella Conference Set to Go Virtual in 2021

The annual Legionella Conference put on by NSF Health Sciences and the National Environmental Health Association was planned to take place at the Sheraton Grand Hotel in Chicago, but COVID-19 safety concerns prompted the organizers to rethink the traditional in-person format. Now, they're planning a virtual special session for March and an entirely virtual conference for August 2021.

"We've got an emergent health crisis—a pandemic—which has fundamentally altered the utilization of many buildings," Chris Boyd, general manager for building water health at NSF International and one of the conference organizers, said in an interview for Currents. "This amplifies the opportunity for risk."

Given these occupancy changes, the virtual special session on March 9–10 will focus on preventing disease and injury from waterborne pathogens during the pandemic. Boyd noted that this is an opportunity for water testing professionals to engage with stakeholders as well as share best practices, practical management experiences, and strategies within different sectors. Such collaboration supports safe building reopenings, heading off an increase in Legionnaires' disease.

Water Testing Labs Play a Critical Role

The lab community is essential in supporting tens of thousands of building owners in evaluating the risks within their water systems, both when spaces are vacant and when they return to full occupancy, Boyd pointed out.

"The validation sampling we do for Legionella is absolutely critical to understanding whether we are successfully managing risk in the context of a water management plan," he said.

For the session in March, speakers will be organized into themes and specific topics. Key topic areas for water testing laboratories include strategies for modeling risk, as well as new approaches to sampling and testing that are emerging during the pandemic.

The entire healthcare sector is seeing significant changes in utilization, Boyd observed. Although hospitals caring for COVID-19 patients have been oversubscribed, the opposite is true for institutions doing elective surgery, primary care, and diagnostic work, where demand has decreased drastically. Speakers from health departments, water utilities, and key industry groups, such as the American Water Works Association (AWWA), will share practical steps to manage risks related to low utilization.

The virtual special session covers risk management in premise plumbing, including emerging technologies. In addition, a panel discussion will look at aligning guidance from the Environmental Protection Agency, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the AWWA, and state health departments to come up with a national strategy.

A Virtual Platform Creates New Opportunities

Past in-person Legionella Conferences were well attended, but health departments and lab networks could usually only send one or two individuals. Going virtual opens up the experience to a broader audience.

"Now, labs can send multiple people for a similar price point and expand access to information that would normally not be available unless you came in person," Boyd said.

The organizers want to ensure that the special session and annual conference aren't just extended webinars, but engaging, collaborative experiences that offer ad hoc opportunities for connection. Boyd said that NSF International has a partnership with a well-regarded virtual conference platform.

Besides having presentations professionally prepared beforehand, the organizers will have the ability to offer live panel discussions and a live video chat between participants and speakers, Boyd explained.

"If you're in a session and there's someone you want to follow up with, you will see them and their contact information," he said. "During the break, you could say, 'I saw that you asked a question in this presentation about a particular testing strategy. I've used it and can talk with you about it.'" He added that, over the long term, the Legionella Conference organizers are considering a hybrid model with an interactive component.

In the near term, the virtual event in March includes healthcare professionals, certified industrial hygienists, environmental consultants, water treatment specialists, plumbing engineers, plumbing manufacturers, and professional associations.

"This is a multifaceted stakeholder engagement," Boyd said. "For the lab community, it's probably one of the few opportunities where they can get insight into what their clients are trying to achieve."

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Alyssa Danigelis

Alyssa Danigelis is a professional freelance journalist who covers business, sustainability, energy, science, and technology. She received a bachelor’s degree from Mount Holyoke College and a master’s degree from Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism. Having grown up in Burlington, Vermont, she spent formative time in Boston and pounded the pavement for years in New York City before moving to sunny Colorado, where she currently resides.