The Consumer Electronics Show (CES) ended in Las Vegas on January 7, 2022, a day early due to COVID concerns. The show, historically one of the largest in the United States, attracted around 40,000 attendees this year (30% of them international), compared to 170,000 in 2020.
Amid Omicron’s rise, major exhibitors like Microsoft, Intel, GM, Amazon and T-Mobile pulled out, citing employee health concerns. Nonetheless, Gary Shapiro, president and CEO of the Consumer Technology Association, said “CES will and must continue.”
To get there, CES2022 took a plethora of precautions to prevent the spread of the virus. The array of health protocols included encouraging all attendees to take a pre-show COVID test and requiring proof of full COVID-19 vaccination to earn a CES 2022 badge. Free COVID-19 self-testing was distributed to each attendee, with testing and health care also available on site. Masks were mandatory at all venues and on buses. Hand sanitizer stations were available throughout the widely spaced expo floor, with social distancing aided by the horde of no-shows.
How effective has all this been? With no published data and a lack of transparency from show organizers and Nevada health officials, it’s hard to say.
But there are data points of concern. At least seventy employees from the 340 Korean companies at the show, including Samsung, SK and Hyundai Heavy Industries, tested positive. Samsung, one of the biggest companies at CES, chartered two planes to fly 20 COVID-positive employees back to South Korea.
“Many Korean businessmen who attended CES… are now confirmed to be infected with COVID-19,” said Son Young-rae, an official with South Korea’s health ministry. “We are promptly contacting those who attended the event and conducting epidemiological investigations, but we urge domestic businesspeople or those in Korea who attended the event to undergo PCR testing as soon as possible. “
Fortunately, most of the Korean delegates apparently had minor symptoms and were quarantined after arrival. We contacted Samsung for more information but received no response.
Tony Slonim, MD, DrPH, FACHE, president and CEO of Renown Health in Reno, NV, was a CES medical partner. He said: “We are now more prepared than ever to keep people safe, which is CES’ top priority. I am impressed that the Consumer Technology Association, our hotels, conference venues, and the City of Las Vegas have worked diligently to put in place all contemporary security practices to ensure a healthy and successful in-person meeting this year.
However, Korea Times claimed, “Although the event only allows fully vaccinated people and mandatory masks to be worn indoors, the measures applied would have been insufficient to prevent swarms of visitors and journalists from being infected.”
We tried to contact Dr. Slonim after the show. He declined an interview. A public relations officer from Renown Health said: ‘We spoke with Dr Slonim and from what he saw at the meeting, CES did a great job on the safety protocols, but he didn’t. There’s no tracking data on the infection/spread/hospitalization rate among attendees, exhibitors and show workers so he doesn’t feel like the right person to comment.
On January 8, 2022, the Southern Nevada Health District released a COVID-19 update announcing the highest number of COVID-19 cases reported in a single day in the Las Vegas area since the pandemic began. The statement noted that as of Jan. 7 (coincidentally the closing day of the CES show), 392,971 cases of COVID-19 have been reported in Clark County, an increase of 6,110 cases from the previous day. . In addition, the health district reported fifteen deaths.
How many of these cases came from CES? We asked CTA for data on the number of participants who tested positive. CTA did not provide any figures but offered this statement.
“We are aware of media reports that some people who attended CES in January 2022 tested positive for COVID-19 upon their return. CES 2022 had very robust health protocols developed with guidance from medical professionals and government security officials. Proof of vaccination and mask-wearing requirements at all CES indoor venues, as well as the provision of self-testing kits for all attendees, have helped us create a safer environment for our exhibitors, members and attendees.
“We offered free PCR tests to all international participants who were required to show proof of a negative test before flying internationally to their destination. We do not have confirmation of the number of cases because it is extremely difficult to determine exactly when and where someone contracted COVID-19. The results of on-site testing by medical personnel have been reported to local health officials in southern Nevada.
We have repeatedly contacted Nevada health authorities, both the Southern Nevada Department of Health (SNHD) and the Nevada Department of Health and Human Services. The SNHD did not respond. The Nevada Department of Health and Human Services claimed that “although DHHS is unable to determine which positive test results were linked to CES, the State of Nevada appreciates the protocols in place prior to the event”.
The lack of data is troubling as the battered travel industry watched to see if an in-person trade show drawing attendees and exhibitors from around the world could be held safely. The recovery of the trade show industry ($34.4 billion worldwide in 2019) after two years of pandemic devastation was significant. The CES could also indicate whether U.S. and international business travelers are finally returning.
“By hosting an influential live event that safely brings together thousands of global professionals from all tech, business and political backgrounds, CES is nothing less than a model for how business events can and should take place in 2022,” said the president and director of the US Travel Association. CEO Roger Dow. “The health and safety protocols in place at the Las Vegas Convention Center and throughout the hotel and hospitality community have further allowed for the safe return of this and other major events.”
CES is also essential in Las Vegas, filling thousands of hotel rooms, restaurants, clubs, bars and taxis Sunday through Thursday. The CES show may be talking about “gadgets,” but the money it’s pumping into the Las Vegas economy — over $300 million — is no joke.
The lack of infection data at CES, as Clark County’s (Las Vegas Strip) positivity rate hit 33.4% as of Jan. 11, is disappointing. Meanwhile, there have been persistent claims that the Consumer Electronics Show 2020 may have been one of the first COVID-19 superspreader events, before the term was even coined. A Las Vegas TV station has tracked down a number of people who attended CES2020 and claimed symptoms of COVID.
Having an idea of the effectiveness of precautions would help travelers understand how manageable the risk is. Without real answers, exhibitors, show managers and business travelers may decide that even after two years of COVID, it’s still too early to hit the road.