Dr. Mary Jo Trepka is an infectious disease epidemiologist and professor and chair of the epidemiology department at the Robert Stempel College of Public Health & Social Work. She was recently invited to participate in advising Miami-Dade County Mayor Daniella Levine Cava on issues related to COVID-19 as South Florida, like much of the country, continues to grapple with a surge in cases. Also serving from FIU are Drs. Aileen Marty and Yolangel Suarez Hernandez, both from the Herbert Wertheim College of Medicine, and Dr. Robert Sackstein, its dean.
Trepka answers questions about the advisory group’s work and discusses how local citizens and members of the FIU community can best support their own and others’ health.
What are some of the decisions on which this group will weigh in?
We’re going to advise the mayor on how to help control COVID and also to help promote and ensure vaccination within the county and, eventually, help the county get back to normal.
Regarding the last, there are a lot of decisions about the protocols of reopening businesses. Those were considered with the previous mayor, and they are being reviewed again because our knowledge about COVID-19 and its transmission continually improve and we have more scientific evidence than we did six months ago. The group is tasked with helping ensure that the policies and procedures in place are up-to-date with our current knowledge.
The mayor has a chief medical officer, Dr. Peter Paige, who is also on the panel, but you get different views when you have several people on a panel. I think she wants to get a variety of viewpoints, the best guidance that we can give her.
What are some of the areas that you would like specifically addressed?
In terms of COVID control, two things. One is that many people are still very wary about the vaccine. It’s brand new, I understand that. We have to do a lot in terms of educating people about how vaccines work and this vaccine in particular, so that people are comfortable because we are not going to be able to control COVID-19 in South Florida if we can’t get the majority of people vaccinated.
The other thing that people don’t realize is that we don’t know for sure that the vaccine controls infectiousness. We know that the vaccine is highly effective in preventing illness, but it is possible that some people will have some asymptomatic infections even with the vaccine. Because of that, it’s going to be really important that we continue doing everything that we are now, like mask wearing, hand washing, physical distancing, until we can bring the cases down low enough that there is no more community transmission within the county. Getting the vaccine doesn’t mean you don’t have to wear a mask any more. Unfortunately, it’s going to be a while before we get there, and most likely we’re going to have to continue a lot of these measures into 2021. So that’s going to be very challenging, to get people to understand that and kind of hang in there with us until we’ve got it under control.
Are people starting to think that because the vaccine is here, we’re almost done with COVID-19?
On the one hand, some people see it as ‘just a little bit longer that I have to be careful.’ On the other hand, there are some people who still don’t understand how serious this is. At this point, COVID is going to be the first or second cause of death in our county this year. Almost 10 percent of the population in Miami-Dade County has had a case of COVID. Two percent of the people in Florida who’ve had COVID have died. We’re learning that about 10 percent of people who get it have long-lasting chronic symptoms, like brain fog, shortness of breath and extreme fatigue. Right now, we’re consistently getting more than 2,000 cases a day in the county.
I understand that the county testing site adjacent to FIU, operated by FIU staff, is currently seeing more than 3,000 people daily.
That’s a good thing. One very positive thing is that we have a lot of testing capacity throughout the county. People can get an appointment right away and tested very easily. At the Miami-Dade County COVID testing site link, they can enter their zip code and find convenient options.
Vaccines are rolling out. When will the average person in Florida have access to one?
I’m not sure if anybody really knows right now. I’m guessing it’s going to be April or May, but it could be earlier. In Tallahassee, at the state health department, maybe some people know that, but it depends on when the vaccines actually come to Florida, and that’s determined at the national level. Right now Florida is concentrating on the health care workers and the people in nursing homes [per CDC recommendations].
What more can and should the mayors of Miami-Dade County and local municipalities do?
Local governments have really been very proactive in terms of getting messages out about the importance of mask wearing, physical distancing, staying home when you’re sick, washing hands. They provided good information and tried to figure out how to encourage people to follow those policies, those safe behaviors, within whatever the state government is allowing local leaders to do.
The county mayor just released a positive campaign in terms of trying to get people to cooperate over the holidays to prevent COVID.The idea is to get people to pitch in and help as opposed to trying to make people feel like they are being ordered to do things and being fined and so forth.
It’s going to continue to be very challenging because there is no easy road out of this. The physical distancing, the measures that are going to most protect and bring down transmission rates, are also those that are very hard on some local businesses so it’s a conundrum. And so the challenges are going to continue.
And what is the state of FIU’s COVID-19 response, to which you have contributed as a leader?
We have an extensive prevention and control program on campus. It begins with all the physical measures we’ve taken such as hand sanitizers and signage to remind people to wear. That is, the hand sanitizer we have everywhere, the signage everywhere to enforce people wearing masks, and also the restrictions on the number of people on campus, so it begins with that. That’s probably the most important thing, along with enhanced cleaning of facilities. Then after that, it’s the P3 app, which is screening people for symptoms and asks if they’ve come into contact with anybody who’s been infected. It’s also an educational tool for people to remind them not to come to campus if they don’t feel well. In addition to the county testing site adjacent to campus, we have multiple testing sites on campus. It’s very, very easy to get a test whether you want to do a drive through or walk up. And we have contact tracing and education through the COVID response team.
Are you confident about FIU welcoming additional numbers of students to campus for the spring semester?
I think we’ve shown that we can relatively safely have people on campus if the number of people on campus is low enough to allow us to maintain physical distancing, but adding more people is only going to work if everybody cooperates and does their best to protect everybody around them.