When should advisors attend conferences again?
One joy of financial planning is our sense of community. There are thousands of planners who volunteer for professional organizations, attend conferences to learn from each other and participate in study groups to elevate their practice.
This networking has been waylaid by our new coronavirus "normal". Conferences are cancelled and in-person events are shuttered for the time being. What will it take to get us back to rebuilding the communities that support our professional and personal growth?
My training in virology, laboratory pathology and emergency medicine gives me a different perspective of how to manage our society’s new path forward. I do not pretend to be a futurist, but will share likely outcomes of what is in store.
We must get the pandemic under control.
There are four important components scientists must address to make our return to thriving in-person collaboration a reality.
Antigen testing – Antigen testing determines if someone is actively infected and carrying the virus. Right now, this is the lowest hanging fruit to control the spread of disease. Point-of-care tests where results are rapidly available are now in use and eventually, testing can be done at home similar to a pregnancy test.
Copious antigen testing is imperative to stop cases from surging again — we need the ability to test tens of millions of people quickly and efficiently if we want to reopen the economy.
Antibody testing – Antibody testing reveals evidence of a current or prior infection. Many people have the misconception that if they develop antibodies, they are immune to the virus. We do not have the studies to prove this and based on viral characteristics, it is highly likely that previous infection does not result in lifelong protection.
The coronavirus is similar to viruses that cause the common cold and influenza. In fact, coronavirus has been around a long time and the old versions do cause the common cold. As we know all too well, we can get colds and the flu over and over.
In a nutshell, antibody testing will likely not be useful as a gauge to whether we can move about safely without fear, but it will help us better understand how infectious the virus is and the true mortality rate for those who get it.
Vaccination – Vaccines introduce antigens into our system to spur antibody development in advance of exposure to a virus or bacteria so our immune system can inactivate the offender before illness occurs. It takes at least 12 to 18 months to develop effective vaccines.
Some vaccines provide lifelong immunity from once-common and devastating diseases like polio. Others need occasional booster shots because our immunity wanes. Tetanus and diphtheria vaccines fit in this category.
The influenza vaccine must be given every year because this class of viruses undergo small continual changes called antigenic drifts and occasional major changes called antigenic shifts. Antigenic shifts are responsible for epidemics. Virologists try to determine in advance what changes will occur to make more effective vaccines. Some years they get it right and some years they don’t.
Where does coronavirus fit in this scheme? COVID-19 is a coronavirus that underwent a major antigenic shift to make it much more deadly than a common cold virus. Unfortunately, it will probably behave similarly to the influenza virus. Its ability to morph over time will likely necessitate recurrent vaccination.
Treatment – The current treatment for disease from coronavirus is supportive. Doctors treat the symptoms of the disease while the body clears the infection. People with less robust immune systems are more likely to develop serious illness, but seemingly healthy people are also becoming severely ill. We do not yet know why.
Antivirals stop the virus from replicating and at best, mitigate the disease process. These drugs must be taken early in the exposure to work well. Coronavirus is difficult to stop because the virus replicates rapidly before causing illness. In most cases, the patient doesn’t know they are infected and are likely to start the antivirals too late to be very effective.
The best hope is to have early testing through contact tracing of those exposed to the virus and to administer an effective antiviral drug before the person develops symptoms. Ideally, we’ll discover a wonder drug that will do the job.
In the meantime, doctors are developing best practices to support patients who become severely ill, but rigorous studies take time to show what truly works.
Smart reentry to normal life
The reason we are social distancing is to buy time to develop tests, vaccines, treatments and for our health care system to ramp up the ability to handle a large number of seriously ill patients. Without social distancing, millions of people might already have died in this country by now.
As the case load dissipates, the smartest route is to gradually ease restrictions — allow businesses with low foot traffic to reopen, but keep in place common sense practices like wearing masks, copious cleaning and frequent handwashing.
Meanwhile, the incidence of new infections needs to be closely monitored with testing. As the number of cases declines and we have a grasp on disease characteristics and the best treatments, we can incrementally reopen more services and eventually larger venues — like conferences. How long will this take? Likely the rest of the year.
Those who are at high risk of serious illness should use abundant caution when attending conferences. Ideally, all conferences will offer remote attendance. This pandemic will cause the quality of remote meeting technology to leapfrog prior systems.
In addition to offering live session attendance, it would be a bonus to provide meeting rooms where electronic attendees can meet with other conference attendees to network or virtually sit in on roundtable discussions.
The job of a financial planner is important, especially in times like we are facing now. Humans are innovative and resilient. We will figure out the best way to use remote meeting technology combined with face to face interactions to maintain the human touch.