Was CES ground zero for the COVID-19 pandemic?

A new investigation from APM Reports has revealed the first confirmed case of COVID-19 in a CES attendee. Experts are now investigating its connection to the global spread of the disease.

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This year's CES is now being studied retrospectively as a potential petri dish for the novel coronavirus. The annual conference which took place at the beginning of January calls itself the world's "gathering place for all who thrive on the business of consumer technologies." It attracts thousands of enterprises, industry professionals, and media reporters from the United States and other countries in a cluster of (extremely packed) venues in Las Vegas. Now, months later, an attendee has come forward to reveal he was infected with COVID-19 right around the same time.

Michael Webber, 49, is the first CES attendee to reveal his case to the public, according to APM Reports. The information could be helpful in piecing together the puzzle of the virus' spread in the U.S. and beyond. If other participants come forward with similar experiences, epidemiologists may be able to study — and perhaps even prove — the CES connection to the deadly pandemic.

Exhibits may shed light on transmission — Medical experts will have a better chance at understanding potential COVID-19 transmission at CES by looking at its attendance audit summary. At this moment, though, only the 2019 audit summary is available online. Input has contacted the Consumer Technology Association for its 2020 summary and will update accordingly.

According to APM Reports, Chinese companies made up 25 percent of those approved to set up their own exhibits at CES. If CTA shares more specific and granular data about the original cities these companies hailed from, medical experts could have the opportunity to study chains of possible infection and transmission. They might finally have the chance to understand whether CES was a super-spreader event or not.

Complaints about illness around and after CES — A quick search of CES social media posts on Twitter shows a rather pronounced spike in tweets about attendees feeling sick, fatigued, and overwhelmed by an inexplicable bug. Some even called it the "Vegas flu." Of course, these tweets fall into the anecdotal category of evidence but they coincide with the time the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention gave nationwide alerts for the virus.

Even weeks after CES, as APM Reports notes, people complained about lingering coughing episodes, headaches, pain in their bodies, and a shortness of breath. Officials like the director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota, Michael Osterholm, said that CES would have been the ideal spot for a viral outbreak.

Delay in testing — A good deal of this speculated transmission could have been examined thoroughly if the official response to COVID-19 did not lag so poorly when it came to basic testing. Still, there is some hope. Public health officials told APM Reports that they plan to rely on some old-school sleuthing, such as learning more about individual CES participants and how they felt after the event. It certainly isn't the fastest method of medical assessment or ecological examination but it is infinitely better than nothing.