Ask an Expert: Dr. Diana Cervantes, UNT Health Science Center

Thursday, December 10, 2020

Dr. Cervantes, UNTHSCUNT System HR is bringing UNT World experts directly to you with this periodic and always timely installation called "Ask An Expert." So, let's ask...

EXPERT: Dr. Diana Cervantes, UNTHSC, Assistant Professor and Director, MPH Epidemiology Program

EXPERTISE: Epidemiology

Known as Dr. Microbe, the assistant professor and Director of the Master of Public Health Epidemiology program is the go-to expert for reporters seeking the inside scoop on infectious diseases. With COVID-19 still raging, Dr. Cervantes is in high demand. We were fortunate to catch up with her to discuss everything from trusting the vaccines to traveling during the holidays to how we'll look back on 2020.

Please check out her full interview on a the episode 31 of the We Are North Texas podcast.

So, let's get started.

Q: There was a lot of concern about people traveling and gathering over Thanksgiving, and how it might increase the spread of COVID-19. We're also seeing hospitals reach critical capacity levels. How dire is the current situation?
Dr. Cervantes:
It really is a difficult time because, you know, we we track the number of hospital beds and ICU beds, but you also have to think that you have to have very specialized staff and very well-trained staff to man those beds. It's not just something that any health care provider could do and, of course, these health care providers aren't robots, they're people, and so it's not just a stress on the actual structure and the number of beds, but also the people who have to deliver that care.

Q: If you are going to gather with family outside of your household for the upcoming holidays, is it enough to get tested prior traveling or gathering?
Dr. Cervantes: Realistically, it is really hard to tell people to not travel to not see their relatives, to not see their loved ones during the holidays. I think you have to be realistic and I think it is realistic to say if you're going to go and you're going to see your loved ones, get a rapid test, one that you're going to get the result within 24 hours. It reduces the likelihood that you're infected and could infect other people. It doesn't eliminate it, but it does help.

Q: We saw heavy airport traffic during Thanksgiving. Is it safe to travel on an airplane?
Dr. Cervantes:
When we talk about travel and we talk about even sporting events, anything like that, it's not just the actual event itself. It's not just sitting there in the plane that increases your risk, it's everything that comes before and after with travel. We know that we can't just pop on a plane, we have to drive there we have to get to the airport, we're standing in lines; all of that increases our risk because every time we're doing that we're having more and more contact with people. Even though we are wearing masks and social distancing, any time you breach one of those layers you increase that risk. So, I think while you're on the plane there is really good air circulation, but there is an increased risk because of everything associated with travel.

Q: Vaccines are on the way, although it might still be some time before the general population can get vaccinated. Would you recommend getting vaccinated at the earliest opportunity or take a wait-and-see approach?
Dr. Cervantes: 
I think it's going to depend on what your risk level is. If you are at home and you just maybe go to the store and pick up some groceries and you're not at high risk of infection, then maybe you could say, you know, I'm going to wait. For me, I would more than happily get the vaccine once it is has gone through FDA approval because, again, there's still a lot we don't know about the long-term effects of infection. Overall, I would get the vaccine.

Q: When this pandemic is finally history, how do you think we’ll look back on this period?
Dr. Cervantes:
I can’t even imagine all of the things that it's going to impact, how many things are going to change because of the pandemic -- the way that we look at our economy and there's just so many aspects. I think the way that we look at how people react to diseases and infections, it's going to be for many, many years looking at the aftereffects and really what happened during this. It's going to be maybe a couple of years that we're going to be in this pandemic, and really what's going to happen with this virus? Is it going to become something like the other seasonal coronaviruses that maybe once we get vaccinated, maybe we get infected again, but not have severe signs and symptoms? Is it just going to become just regular seasonal coronavirus? So, it'll be interesting. One of the things I learned early as an epidemiologist is when you're going through an outbreak, to sort of in a way keep mementos because there's always going to be maybe 10 years from now, I'm going to be teaching this to students and it's going to be so hard for them to grasp what this moment is like. So, I try to try to keep all of those things with me and document as much as possible, that's for sure yeah.

Q: With the holidays coming up, what should we be doing to keep ourselves and our families safe?
Dr. Cervantes:
Avoid the three C's of Covid -- so crowds, cramped, confined spaces and close contact. Those are the things you always want to keep in mind. Also, when you're planning for the holidays -- I mean, I know that it is almost impossible for some people ... so if you need to go (to holiday events), keep it short and sweet and try to imagine, am I going to be in a situation where I might be in a crowd or I might be in a cramped space; if so just make sure that you're prepared, make sure that as much as you can you layer -- do good hand washing, wear your mask, try to keep your distance as much as possible. But, just know that there isn't any one magic bullet on those three things, you have to really layer them up and do the very best you can. More importantly is, think about those people who are very, very susceptible -- your grandmas, your grandpas your our older mother and father, those people that it could be very serious for them to get infected. And, know that there is light at the end of the tunnel and that next year I think we're going to be in a much better position, and we just have to do the best this year knowing that there's many more holidays to come.