© Ron Harris/AP
Headquarters of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta. (AP Photo/Ron Harris, File)

Disease detectives at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are probing a new outbreak: the roughly three-dozen coronavirus cases linked to their own annual conference last week.

“CDC is working with the Georgia Department of Health to conduct a rapid epidemiological assessment of confirmed COVID-19 cases that appear to be connected to the 2023 EIS Conference to determine transmission patterns,” CDC spokesperson Kristen Nordlund said in an email.

Nordlund said the CDC reported the cases to state health officials who have authority over the location where the conference occurred. Attendees said many people at the gathering did not mask, socially distance or take other precautions that the CDC had recommended earlier in the pandemic.

Fewer than 100,000 confirmed coronavirus cases were reported across the United States last week — the lowest levels in nearly two years. But public health experts have cautioned that the vast majority of cases are not being tracked, with many Americans testing at home, if at all, and opting not to report the results. The virus also remains on pace to be one of the top 10 causes of death this year, with fatalities concentrated among older and immunocompromised individuals.

Experts said an outbreak of coronavirus cases at a CDC conference — the first time the meeting of disease detectives was held in person in four years — illustrates the persistence of an evolving virus. The four-day conference for epidemic intelligence service officers and alumni, held near CDC headquarters in Atlanta last week, drew about 2,000 attendees who were likely to be fully vaccinated.

“This is, unfortunately, the new normal,” Jay Varma, an infectious-disease expert at Weill Cornell Medicine, wrote in a text message. “While it is unsettling to see widespread COVID-19 transmission at CDC’s premier public health conference, it’s probably the clearest example yet” of the global situation.

Varma added that individuals and organizations should continue to take coronavirus precautions to protect themselves and the most vulnerable as needed. “I hope that organizers of large conferences, especially for health professionals, should, at a minimum, make high-quality masks as abundant and available as toilet paper and ensure that there is adequate ventilation and/or disinfection of air,” he wrote.

Nordlund said about 35 people linked to the conference had reported testing positive as of Tuesday.

“Conducting a rapid investigation now will help understand transmission that occurred and assist in refining future public health guidance as we move out of the public health emergency and to the next phase of COVID-19 surveillance and response,” she wrote. “Whenever there are large gatherings, especially indoors, such as at a conference, there is the possibility of COVID-19 spread, even in periods of low community spread.”

Conference attendees also received an email from the CDC that encouraged them to participate in the survey with the Georgia health department, according to an email shared with The Washington Post.

“If you attended the conference in person, you may have been exposed to someone with COVID-19,” the email read. “If you are experiencing symptoms, we recommend you follow CDC guidance for isolation and testing.”

The Biden administration has been winding down its pandemic response, with most federal vaccine mandates and the coronavirus public health emergency set to be lifted next week. Public health experts say that while the pandemic’s perils have largely receded, they remain wary of future variants and note that the virus continues to evolve.

For instance, a new omicron subvariant, XBB.1.16, nicknamed Arcturus, is becoming more prevalent throughout the United States. The latest CDC tracker shows the variant made up almost 12 percent of cases nationwide for the week ending April 29, up from about 7 percent the week ending April 15. Most of the infections in the United States right now come from XBB.1.5, also an omicron subvariant.