Ethical Responsibilities of Genealogical Organizations during the Global COVID-19 Pandemic #education #guidelines

Jeffrey Mark Paull

The purpose of this article is to pose the question of what the ethical responsibilities of genealogical organizations, such as the International Association of Jewish Genealogical Societies (IAJGS), are during the global COVID-19 pandemic.  Genealogical organizations are, of course, in the business of genealogy.  But, when conducting their genealogy-related business activities, such as planning, sponsoring, and hosting large national and international conferences, a number of ethical questions involving health policy come into play:

(1) Do genealogy organizations have an ethical responsibility to protect the health of their members when such activities may put their members’ health at risk?

(2) Who makes the health policy decisions of whether to hold a large in-person conference, and on what basis are these decisions made?

(3) What are the ethical responsibilities of genealogical organizations to share public health information, and to keep their membership informed of health-related policy decisions on social media?

This article examines these questions, and the ethical responsibilities of genealogical organizations to its members. 

Jeffrey Mark Paull, DRPH

Sarah L Meyer

While I did not attend, because of a conflict.  The IAJGS conference last summer was VIRTUAL, as were my actuarial conferences.  I think unless you have personal knowledge of some genealogical in-person conference, this question is moot.
Sarah L Meyer
Georgetown TX
BIRGARDOVSKY, EDELBERG, HITE (CHAIT), PERCHIK Russia (southern Ukraine) and some Latvia or Lithuania


On Fri, Jan 22, 2021 at 11:21 AM, Sarah L Meyer wrote:
While I did not attend, because of a conflict.  The IAJGS conference last summer was VIRTUAL, as were my actuarial conferences.  I think unless you have personal knowledge of some genealogical in-person conference, this question is moot.

I beg to differ. This question is not moot. 

This is an incredibly important topic in many respects.  Whilst I am based in the UK, I believe that the issues are the same in most countries around the globe.  The issues are certainly not restricted to IAJGS conferences, but apply to all genealogy societies who intend, in the future, to return to in-person events when it is safe to do so; and to all individuals who may wish to attend an in-person event (large or small - genealogy or other)  in the future. 

Covid-19 will be with us a long time, but when the infection levels decline significantly and all who want have been vaccinated and we have better treatments, we shall hopefully reach a point when we can again hold in-person events.  At that point, genealogy societies will have an obligation to let potential attendees know what precautions are going to be taken at each event, and how to find out about the infection levels and other relevant information, so that each person has adequate information on which to base their own personal  attendance decision.  We may not be in a position to restart in-person events just yet, but we have responsibilities to plan and to make information available.

I am on the Council of the Jewish Genealogical Society of Great Britain and, despite having temporarily moved all our events digital (via Zoom) since mid March 2020, we have already started preparing for the time when we are permitted to meet in-person, and we consider it sufficiently low risk to offer in-person meetings.  No in-person meetings will be completely free of all Covid risks but we can make a big difference in reducing the risks.  By October 2020, the Covid-19 Committee of our Society had already developed a detailed Covid-19 Safety plan and checklist which was then approved by our Council.  When the time is right, and before restarting with any in-person event we shall update this plan.  Communication with potential event attendees will be essential, and we have already a draft document prepared, to be sent to potential event attendees, setting out relevant event details so they can each make their own informed decision on attendance.

For genealogy societies like ours, normally hosting more than 20 in person events each year, and also considering offering to host an international genealogy conference in the future, Jeffrey's comments and suggestions are very useful.

On a slightly different note, I believe that "hybrid events" offering attendees the opportunity for both in-person and remote attendance and participation at the same event, will be a big part of solving the problem of how we can return to in-person genealogy events in the future.

Laurence Harris
London, England

Judi Gyory Missel

As the Lead Co-Chair for the 2021 IAJGS Conference, I would like to share information about our Conference and health concerns...
After the success of the all-virtual 2020 Conference, some sessions will again be offered virtually in 2021. While we anticipate an in-person conference, contingency plans are in place for any eventuality. The Conference is over six months away and we are working with local health guidelines to continue evaluating our path. The health and safety of all registrants, sponsors, exhibitors, and staff is deeply important, and we appreciate your patience as we make the best determination for this conference.

Judi Gyory Missel
Arizona USA
2021 IAJGS Conference Lead Co-Chair

Jeffrey Mark Paull

The U.S. has been administering doses of the COVID-19 vaccine since mid-December.  As of mid-January, there was an average of almost 900,000 people getting their first doses of the vaccine each day. This pace might change, but based on the recent rate, it could take a full year – until January 2022 – for every American to get at least one shot, according to data analyzed by The Wall Street Journal. See:


Although the IAJGS International Jewish Genealogy Conference is still over six months away, conference registration and hotel reservations begin in March.  It is unrealistic to think that the majority of Americans are going to be vaccinated by then, or even by July, when final travel arrangements, including airline flights, are generally made.


Last year, the decision to cancel the in-person event, and to hold an all-virtual conference was not made until May of 2020. This resulted in a lot of uncertainty and inconvenience for everyone, as travel plans had to be cancelled, and refunds processed.  In addition, the lateness of the decision left little time for the IAJGS to plan a virtual conference.


This year, as we prepare to go down that same path again, perhaps it would be beneficial if the IAJGS, rather than making their decisions in a vacuum, opens the decision-making process to include as many stakeholders as possible.  For instance, why not poll speakers, attendees, and registrants of the conference to find out what their preferences are regarding an in-person international conference vs. an all-virtual conference?  A hybrid event offering speakers and attendees the option for either in-person or remote attendance, is another possibility.



If nothing else, opening up the decision-making process would give the IAJGS a feel for the number of people interested in attending an international in-person conference, to see if hosting a live event this year is even feasible.


It would also be beneficial for the IAJGS to provide speakers and attendees with a way to share health-related information with one another on its social media platforms. With so much variability between different states and countries in regard to COVID incidence, prevalence, and vaccination rates, as well as the ever-changing landscape regarding COVID testing requirements, and dining and travel restrictions, it is important for attendees of an international conference to have a mechanism for sharing information, and for communicating with one another. 

These suggestions may not represent business as usual for the IAJGS, but then, extraordinary challenges, such the ones we are facing in the midst of a global pandemic, call for extraordinary measures.
Jeffrey Mark Paull

Stephen Weinstein

On Sat, Jan 23, 2021 at 04:16 AM, Jeffrey Mark Paull wrote:
it could take a full year – until January 2022 – for every American to get at least one shot,
Since many Americans will refuse to be vaccinated and some Americans cannot receive the vaccine due to allergies, not every American will get at least one shot by January 2022 or any other time.

This raises another question relating to genealogical in-person events: Should proof of vaccination be required before atteding?  If so, should those who cannot receive the vaccine due to allergies be barred from the event?  Or should they be admitted, but not those who voluntarily decide not to be vaccinated?

I think we are a long way away from needing to decide this.  If you are correct that it would take that long for the number of doses administered in the U.S. to equal the U.S. population, then it would take about that long it would take to fully vaccinate everyone willing and able, assuming two doses per person and that about half the population is willing and able to be vaccinated.  (If half the population gets two doses, and half gets none, due to refusal or allergies, that is an average of one dose per person.)
Stephen Weinstein
Camarillo, California, USA

Kenneth Packer

Thank you Jeffrey for your thoughts.  I believe that for our type of conference, in-person is best.  It allows for the best sharing of ideas and research.  I know, as I have been to two conferences so far.  But with Covid, a hybrid would be prudent for those who can not get there, whether it is because of cost, health, travel, or other responsibilities.  AND, most importantly, all those who attend in person should be required to show proof of Covid vaccination.  Stay safe, wear a mask!

Never let a genealogical stone go unturned.


Ken Packer

Washingtonville, NY

Kenneth Packer
41 Cardinal Dr.
Washingtonville, NY 10992
(Home) 845-496-3708
(Cell/Text) 845-590-1315
(Fax) 845-496-3709
(E-mail) packer18@...


It's amazing how we have so easily slipped into a totalitarian mindset without any actual evidence at all. 
Showing vaccination certificates will become the equivalent of showing a pass in Apartheid South Africa or a yellow star for many of our family members. 

At the moment we know almost nothing about the long-term efficacy of available vaccines, their risks (in low risk people) in the real world,
whether they prevent transmission in any substantial way.. and a bunch of other things. A whole lot of science needs to be done before the yellow stars get handed out. 

The lessons from the last pandemics (for example involving Pandemrix) are largely undiscussed and many people never even know what even happened.  There were so many lessons that need learning from past experience not least of which the human and scientific ones. 

Dr Aubrey Blumsohn

Sheffield, UK

Max Heffler

I appreciate Dr. Paul’s advocacy for our protection. My wife and I have decided we will not likely take any flights this year and a hybrid component would be helpful for those of use making this decision.


Max Heffler

Houston, TX




Max Heffler
Houston, TX


The situation is actually a lot more complicated than has been suggested:
The two vaccines approved so far are effective at preventing serious symptoms from SARS-CoV-2, but the medical community is still waiting to see whether people who have been vaccinated can still spread the virus.  
The answer will probably come from Israel, where every adult should be vaccinated by the end of February; if it does, there should be a dramatic drop-off in new cases there within the next few weeks. The effect in the US should be the same.  Other vaccine candidates still in the pipe-line may be better at stopping the virus from spreading.  If one emerges that can stop transmission, it should be used preferentially to the two currently being administered; people who have received the first two may have to get the new one as well.
If people who have been vaccinated can still transmit the virus, the next open question comes into play: How long does the protection offered by the vaccines last?  At the rate of vaccination envisioned by Pres. Biden, we will reach "herd immunity" no earlier than August, i.e., eight months after vaccinations began.  If the vaccine doesn't provide at least eight months protection, and doesn't stop transmission, we'll be little closer to the end of the pandemic in August than we are now; some fraction of the public will be protected from serious consequences at any one time, but that's it.  People who have not been vaccinated, and those whose vaccine protection has been lost will remain vulnerable.
Plans for any face-to-face meetings during the coming summer ought to consider that this August may be little different from last August from the perspective of the pandemic.
Sorry, but that is the reality.
Yale Zussman


MODERATOR NOTE while the subject matter is not genealogical in nature, the information is useful for members to decide if they will attend the IAJGS Conference in Philadelphia in August or not.

I totally agree with Yale.
I am a Pharmacist working in a Hospital, and there is an ongoing discussion whether vaccinated people can still transmit the virus.
There are several known cases when people (Hospital employees actually) were sick with COVID-19 back in March-April 2020, and they are sick 2nd time now. 
All those people had antibodies after their 1st time sickness, and yet they got the virus again. Fortunately their symptoms were not as severe as previously (thanks to antibodies).
The point is if someone with natural antibodies (produced as a result of being sick with COVID-19) can get virus again, vaccinated people can get the virus too.
They themselves will be protected (hopefully), but there is still risk of transmitting the virus to people who were not vaccinated.

Another point to mention is the "herd immunity." In order to reach that threshold, at least 70% of the population should be vaccinated. In my opinion, it's impossible to reach it for 3 major reasons.
1. The number of people who refuse to be vaccinated is still very high. In my hospital, it is about 70% employees are vaccinated. I assume the rest just refused. And I am talking about Hospital employees - a general population refusal rate will be much higher.
2. As Yale mentioned, not everyone who wants to get a vaccine can actually get it if he/she has history of severe allergic reaction. It is not a contraindication, and nobody died from getting a vaccine. But still such people might not be good candidates for being vaccinated.
3. Moderna vaccine is approved for people 18 y/o and older; Pfizer vaccine - for 16 y/o and older. But what about people younger than 16? They can contract and spread the virus.

Having all this said, I think people should have a choice of whether they can physically come to the conference or participate remotely. 

Stay safe!

Best regards,

Jeffrey Briskman, Pharm.D.

Judy Petersen

I appreciate this discussion very much.
I personally, am not planning any travel for 2021 and maybe even 2022.  Out of respect for both those who are willing to travel, and those who are not, I wo think planning a hybrid conference from the outset makes the most sense.

One thing that has not yet been mentioned--the virus has mutated.  There are at least 2 known mutations, and we do not yet know whether the vaccines available provide protection, either short term, long term or partial protection from these mutations, or for how long.  I think we will be playing catch-up trying to stave off this disease for a quite awhile, which is basically why I'm not getting my hopes up that large, in-person gatherings will be feasible in the near to mid-term future.

As many of us have, I have been attending virtual conferences, webinars, lectures, etc. all year.  As much as I would like to see people in person, I find that virtual learning is a very satisfactory platform, for several reasons:
1) Cost: With my budget, I can attend more sessions, as many virtual sessions as either free, or have a much reduced cost.
2) Flexibility: Most sessions are recorded, and I can watch them at my leisure.
3) Access: I have been attended webinars taking place all over the world; this has allowed me to experience a greater variety of topics than previously.

Of course, the major disadvantage is for a) the vendors, who rely on in-person contacts and sales, and b) networking/social activities amongst participants.  I think many providers are getting better at meeting the social needs, whether through "schmooze time" before and after lectures, breakout rooms where like-minded people can get together, virtual cocktail parties, etc. Meeting the needs of vendors may require some more creative problem solving, but I think is do-able.

I'd also like to address Dr. Blumsohn's concern of slipping into a totalitarian mindset--while I share your concern about the vaccine's efficacy over the long term, etc., once that has been established, how would showing evidence of vaccination be any different than schools requiring evidence of vaccination before they allow children to attend, which is the current standard?  I guess I just don't see it as that big of a deal.

Thank you to all,

Judy Petersen
Fort Collins, CO, USA

MODERATOR NOTE: Moderna states that their vaccine works against two of the mutant viruses: Moderna is Making a Mutant-Proof Vaccine, Just in Case It’s Needed ( 

Jeffrey Mark Paull

According to the Pennsylvania Department of Health regulations pertaining to events and gatherings, from the document: “Frequently Asked Questions for the Governor's and Secretary of Health's Mitigation, Enforcement and Immunity Orders and Limited Time Targeted Mitigation Orders,” indoor gatherings of more than 10 persons are prohibited. See: these regulations could change over the next several months, depending on the severity of the pandemic, that is the way that things stand right now.

On a side note, 
Philadelphia just made the national news for having problems in administering its COVID-19 vaccination program.  See: “Why did Philly entrust a vaccine program to a young student group with no health care experience?”

Jeffrey Mark Paull

Sarah L Meyer

We are not going to travel, and I will not fly until things are clearer.  Also the virtual conferences that I have attended were generally much BETTER for me because I have hearing problems, and there is no problem with curtains and speech from another room.  And yes, my husband and  I just had our first shot of Covid vaccine yesterday.  I am hoping to be able to see our son and two grandchildren by early summer.  It may be fall before we even consider going as far as Chicago to see our daughter.  So my vote, if I have one is for another Virtual conference.

Sarah L Meyer
Georgetown TX
BIRGARDOVSKY, EDELBERG, HITE (CHAIT), PERCHIK Russia (southern Ukraine) and some Latvia or Lithuania

Jeffrey Mark Paull

Update (February 1, 2021): As registration for the National Genealogical Society (NGS) 2021 Family History Conference opens, NGS has made a proactive health-based decision to change from holding an in-person event, to hosting a virtual conference: "Due to ongoing mandates in Virginia in regards to COVID-19 and our concern for the well-being of our attendees, exhibitors, volunteers, and staff, NGS will no longer be able to host an in-person conference in Richmond, Virginia in May 2021."

Jeffrey Mark Paull

Jeffrey Mark Paull

Moderator note: While this is one individual's feelings and thoughts, it will be the IAJGS 2021 Conference Committee who will make the decision to have the conference virtual, live or a combination of both. 

The U.S. death toll from the coronavirus topped 500,000 on Sunday, February 21, 2021, a milestone that underscores the grave threat the virus still poses (  Currently, only 13.6% of the U.S. population has been vaccinated, and, according to Dr. Anthony Fauci, Americans may still be wearing face masks in 2022 (

Since January 11, there has been a five-week downward trend in COVID-19 cases. .Even with these declines, however, the 69,165 cases reported on February 17 remains higher than what was seen during either of the first two peaks in the pandemic (

Although it is difficult to predict what the COVID-19 incidence rate will be at the time of the IAJGS International Jewish Genealogy Conference in August, it is unlikely that herd immunity will be reached by then, and strict public health precautions, including masks and social distancing, will be required.

There is still a shortage of vaccine supply in most states, and achieving a 75% vaccination rate by August probably represents a best-case scenario.  Even if this vaccination rate is achieved, however, many people in the high-risk group, or those with pre-existing conditions, may not feel comfortable travelling to Philadelphia to attend a large in-person international conference.  People with respiratory conditions, such as asthma, may also not feel comfortable having to wear masks while they are traveling, or whenever they leave their room in the conference hotel.

Given these uncertainties, many IAJGS conference speakers and attendees, myself included, would much prefer attending a virtual conference to attending an in-person event this year.

Registration for the 2021 IAJGS Conference begins in March.  It is my hope that the IAJGS Board will follow the lead of other genealogical organizations, such as the National Genealogical Society, and plan for a fully virtual conference, or a hybrid conference with a virtual option.  No one should be put in the position of having to register for an in-person conference that they are not comfortable attending for reasons relating to their health, safety, and comfort.

Jeffrey Mark Paull, DRPH