by Andrea Doyle | February 02, 2015
An Ebola scare was the last thing Linda C. Lewis, executive vice president and chief American Nurses Credentialing Center (ANCC) officer, thought she'd be dealing with while hosting her organization's National Magnet Conference. But there she was in Dallas on Oct. 8 of last year with 7,000 nurses arriving on the same day that Eric Duncan, the first Ebola patient diagnosed in the United States, died at the city's Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital.  
The week before the conference, shortly after Duncan was diagnosed, Lewis and her staff posted a note on the ANCC conference website alerting conference attendees that they were aware of the situation and were providing as much assistance as possible. "We believe that nurses are very competent in handling infectious diseases and we did not want to play into the media frenzy," says Lewis.

During the event, ANCC took extra precautions to ensure the safety of attendees: restrooms were monitored at all times during conference hours -- no bathroom monitors reported any sign of illness. Health rooms were staffed and routinely checked during the conference -- there were no reported instances of fever, cold, or flu-like symptoms. A touching moment occurred when Lewis offered words of support for Texas Health Presbyterian Chief Nursing Officer Dr. Cole Edmonson and his team during the conference, and he received a standing ovation.

On the broader front, the organization and its parent organization, the American Nurses Association, distributed a series of communications during the event and in the aftermath to keep its members informed about the evolving situation. These included email messages sent to all members, two quickly prepared webcasts, and an Ebola resource webpage that was accessed by 30,000 unique visitors.

Ebola is not a new disease. It first emerged in Sudan in 1976. "As a society, we fear the things we don't know very well. Ebola has been around a long time but we didn't see it in this country until this year," says Dr. Jennifer Ashton (pictured), a board-certified obstetrician-gynecologist and ABC News senior medical contributor with Good Morning America and World News Tonight with David Muir. She is also author of several books including her most recent one, Your Body Beautiful -- and a popular corporate speaker.

"Casual travel contact will not result in Ebola -- influenza and the GI norovirus should be greater worries. These diseases kill more in the U.S. than have died of Ebola thus far in this current outbreak. Viruses and bacteria are smart -- they are always evolving, always changing. Although infectious diseases can be scary, we can't live in a plastic bubble." (see Dr. Ashton's tips for staying healthy.)

While most health risks faced by events are much less dramatic than the ANCC situation, industry experts agree that when dealing with big and small health scares at meetings and conferences, it is most important to be practical -- not fearful. Here are the best practices that some meeting planners use to prevent illness from wreaking havoc on their events, as well as their tips for keeping attendees healthy.

Be Proactive, Not Reactive
When dealing with health scares and meetings and conferences, facts about prevention and risk controls should be readily available so attendees understand how to respond to an outbreak.

Dr. Robert Quigley, senior vice president of medical assistance, International SOS, lays out the following scenario: A Chicago-based company is having an annual meeting in the Caribbean. The fact there are many mosquito-borne viruses in this part of the world is never mentioned. A mistake, he says.

What if someone has a heart attack or moped accident? "It's imperative that proper planning include participant risk mitigation," he explains. He recommends companies require eLearning or webinars about risk mitigation that employees must take before meetings and events. For example, TravelTracker is a product that not only helps organizations act immediately during critical events by identifying travelers at risk but also shows who has participated in preparatory webinars and who has not.  

"Meeting planners, as well as those who make decisions to send employees to these events, play a critical role in safeguarding travelers and other VIPs," says Dr. Quigley. (See some of his best practices for keeping attendees healthy, safe, and secure when planning and executing a meeting.)