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Pent up Demand at AAO: Moving From Pandemic To Endemic and Learning To Live With the Virus in the Post-COVID-19 Era

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Unless you have been on Mars for the last few years, every person on Earth knows that the COVID-19 pandemic was a global outbreak of SARS-CoV-2 infection that rapidly spread across the world in 2019. The pandemic has been famously declared “over” by many pundits and politicians but the truth is more complex and nuanced. The reality is that we now have to learn to live in a new normal with our enemy, the SARS-CoV-2 virus (and COVID-19). The disease has likely entered an endemic phase, but sporadic outbreaks will continue to occur periodically (although they will be more limited and confined to specific geographic areas). 

Likewise, our “face to face” interactions, meetings, and conferences likely will never truly return completely to pre-pandemic normal. We will all have to adapt and transition to our new reality and our new normal as we learn to “live with the virus”. This past week’s American Academy of Ophthalmology (AAO) annual meeting in Chicago was no exception to this transition period and I wanted to share my observations (which are my own personal opinions and not those of the AAO) and experiences at the 2022 AAO meeting.

First, however a disclosure. I love people. I love the whole Academy experience. I love the mingling, the debates, the QA, the interviews, all of it. What I love most however is interacting with my friends and colleagues in ophthalmology. The passion and purpose surrounds and envelops you from the time you arrive at O’Hare Airport to the time you depart. Simply put, I love ophthalmology and the AAO Annual Meeting. Zoom and other virtual platforms have made it easier to deliver my own lectures anywhere (and anytime) in the world but the critical missing piece is face to face human interaction. A zoom screen is a reasonable stop gap during a pandemic and admittedly some things will not return to true normal but there is simply no substitute for genuine, real time, human interaction. So thanks to the AAO for coming back strong.

At the AAO, I usually take a lot of photos and admittedly I am an over-enthusiastic Facebook poster but this Academy was a bit different, qualitatively and quantitatively in terms of pics. Seeing people again after our two-year COVID19 hiatus released some serious pent up demand for selfies. Almost every person in my professional and personal orbit in ophthalmology wanted to take a photo together this year and by mid meeting it was just an expected outcome of every social interaction not just at the parties but in the hallway, in the café, in the exhibit hall…everywhere. 

One look at my Facebook page and you will get the idea that I had no down time between meetings and selfies. The look on all of our happy faces however tells the story of post pandemic joy and is the enduring proof that people from all backgrounds, all countries, and all parts of ophthalmology crave that connection with other like-minded “ophtho people.”

Although many individuals still could not travel to the meeting this year (e.g., countries with “zero COVID policies) and others chose the hybrid (e.g., virtual, streaming or recorded) options for the AAO this year, it seemed to me that the attendance was pretty good. I suspect that for those of us who chose to come to Chicago in person, the trip was more about seeing people than seeing lectures. Some things however will probably become our new normal. Handshakes and hugs were certainly more restrained and the new etiquette defaults to no-contact unless offered. Hand washing stations were widely available and widely used. Shared food options (buffet) were less available and the AAO proof of vaccination requirement was enforced on the front end creating efficient but still moderately long queues at registration on day one.

So what does this all mean? The reality is that we have a new reality and a new normal. The pandemic may be over, but COVID-19 is likely here to stay joining the other defeated but not completely vanquished viral enemies of human history. For me, this year’s AAO Annual Meeting was a chance to recharge and reconnect with the people and specialty that I love. I suspect that others who attended in person felt the same way. The AAO meeting tagline is “Where all of ophthalmology meets” but likely that will become our new normal…Where all of ophthalmology meets… virtual, hybrid, or in person! I hope to see you all at the 2023 AAO meeting in San Francisco. PS: Yes, I definitely want a selfie with you.

Dr. Lee has no conflicts of interest to report.

Image by Boris Zhitkov / Shutterstock

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