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Ask an Expert: Dr. Diana Cervantes

UNT 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 her full interview on a the latest episode 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.

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Health Savings Accounts (HSA) are available to individuals who participate in the high deductible plan only -- Consumer Directed Health Select. Did you know there are many qualified medical expenses that your HSA can help you cover? Funds can be used to pay for much more than deductibles and copays, like dental, vision, chiropractic care and more. Are you taking full advantage of all of your HSA’s tax benefits by contributing the maximum each year?

Three ways to contribute:

  • Employer payroll deductions
  • Set up a recurring contribution
  • Make a one-time contribution

2021 contribution limits

  • An individual can contribute up to $3,600 (increase of $50 from 2020) for the year
  • An individual with family coverage can contribute up to $7,200 (an increase of $100 from 2020) for the year
  • Individuals are responsible for managing their contributions and not exceeding limits

Catch-up contribution
Once you turn 55, you can contribute an additional $1,000 each year to your HSA, called a catch-up contribution. If you and your spouse are both over the age of 55, you can each contribute an additional $1,000. Your spouse will just need to open their own HSA for their additional portion. 

Both medical and prescription drug insurance coverage deductibles restart Jan. 1, 2021. What does that mean for you? A few things. Until you reach the $50 prescription drug deductible, you might pay more the next time you fill a prescription. And, coinsurance and out of pocket maximums for most plans also restart in the new year. Get all the info you need here in the chart below:

2021 health insurance deductibles - what you need to know

If you are enrolled in: When does the deductible restart? Annual deductible

HealthSelect of Texas (your eligibility county on file with ERS is in Texas and you're not eligible for Medicare)

or

HealthSelect Out-of-State (your eligibility county on file with ERS is outside Texas and you're not eligible for Medicare)

In-network: There is no medical deductible to see in-network providers

Out-of-network: The out-of-network medical deductible restarts on Jan. 1

The prescription drug deductible of $50 restarts on Jan. 1

In-network: No deductible

Total In-network out-of-pocket maximum: $6,750 per person/$13,500 per family

Out-of-pocket coinsurance maximum: $2,000 per person

Out-of-network: $500 per person/$1,500 per family

Out-of-pocket coinsurance maximum: $7,000 per person

Consumer Directed HealthSelect

In-network: Combined medical and pharmacy deductible restarts on Jan. 1

Out-of-network: Combined medical and pharmacy deductible restarts on Jan. 1.

Note: Consumer Directed HealthSelect has a combined medical and pharmacy deductible, which means that both medical and prescription drug expenses count toward meeting the deductible. 

In-network: $2,100 per individual/$4,200 per family

Total In-network out-of- pocket maximum: $6,750per person/$13,500 per family

Out-of-pocket coinsurance maximum: $7,000 per person

Out of network: $4,200 per individual/$8,400 per family

Ask an Expert: Dr. Han Wen

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

EXPERT: Dr. Han Wen, Assistant Professor, UNT Hospitality Management

EXPERTISE: Shopping for, serving and gifting wine

December is the month for giving, and what better way to express our appreciation for family, friends and colleagues than by giving an exemplary bottle of wine? But, if you're anything like us, you can stand in front of the wine aisle for an hour and accomplish nothing more than scratching our head. What variety should I buy? What year? Does that one cost too little or too much? So many questions, so little time.

Have no fear, Dr. Wen is here.

Q: When giving a bottle of wine as a gift, what are ways to make it feel more personal?
Dr. Wen: If you have toured a winery and enjoyed its wine, buy a bottle from that winery and you can pass along a meaningful story about your trip, how you happened upon the winery or about how the grapes there grow and how the winemaker produces the wines. Another personalized idea is to select a wine with vintages that match the birth year of the person who's accepting the gift. Also, some websites allow you to personalize the wine bottle with a picture or customized text. 

 

Q: While perusing the wine aisle desperately trying to decide on the right bottle, is there a way to research bottles of wine right there in the store?
Dr. Wen:
 Yes. One of the great methods to research the wine at the store is to download apps on your phone, such as Delectable or Vivino. Open the app and you can scan the label and find out the rating of the wine, a tasting profile based on thousands of user reviews, suggestions of foods that go well with the wine and other information. To do research before you go to the store, a website such as Winefolly.com is an excellent resource.

Q: OK, so we've heard that a bottle with a screw cap is inferior to one with a traditional cork. Is that true?
Dr. Wen: From experts' perspective, there's actually not much difference between those two -- just different types of closure. Traditionally, wine makers love to use cork as the closure. For modern wine-making, a lot of producers have started to really like the screw caps. Screw caps will prevent the problem of cork taint.

Q: Price is always sticking point for us. Some wine can be out of our price range, but we also don't want to spend too little. What is a price point that lets us know we are giving a bottle of wine we can be proud of?
Dr. Wen: Depending on the occasion, a different type of wine with different price ranges may be selected. For example, if you would like to select a bottle of Champagne (i.e., the Sparkling wine made in Champagne, France), you’re expecting to pay $30 or more. Likewise, a bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon from Napa Valley costs $20 or more. However, a Prosecco or Moscato d’Asti only costs between $10-$15, but most consumers love them, especially Millennials. I wouldn't really recommend some cheaper wines advertised below $5. 

Q: Speaking of different regions of the world, is there a particular region that is currently particularly trendy?
Dr. Wen: 
As there are a large number of wine regions throughout the world, it is hard to say which wine region is getting particularly trendy. The most recent trend in the wine consumer market is that consumers are more and more interested in learning the “stories behind the bottle.” For example, consumers are concerned about the wine-making processes and value sustainable wine-making practices. If you have already tried many Old World wines (i.e., wines made in European countries which has a long history of wine-making), I would recommend you to experience some New World wines (i.e., wines made in non-European countries). These New World wines give the Old World vines completely new expressions. Examples of these excellent New World wines include Shiraz from Australia, Sauvignon Blanc or Pinot Noir from New Zealand, Pinotage or Chenin Blanc from South Africa, Malbec from Argentina, Cabernet Sauvignon from Chile, Cabernet Sauvignon from Napa Valley (U.S.), and Pinot Noir from Oregon (U.S.).

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Dr. Scott Belshaw

As an Associate Professor of Criminal Justice and the Director of the UNT Cyber Forensics Lab, Dr. Scott Belshaw works to develop technology that helps catch criminals. A U.S. Navy veteran, he considers himself a "dark web expert" and his research interests include cyber security and crime. He has enjoyed working at UNT World for 13 years and loves "working with the awesome students we have at UNT."

Judging by his photo, you might think Dr. Belshaw's favorite place to travel is Mexico or maybe Central or South

America, but you'd be wrong. He has a very specific (and tasty) employee benefit he'd like UNT World to consider -- surely one that every carnivorous Texan can get behind. And, Dr. Belshaw is the proprietor of a quite active and often humorous Twitter account (@drscottbelshaw) with tweets like this Happy Thanksgiving message (maybe don't show to your young children if they watch Sesame Street). To learn more about the man with the iguana on his head, click the button below.

Q&A
What employee benefit or activity would you like to see added to UNT World?
More places on campus where the faculty/staff can barbecue. I love barbecue and the faculty and staff should be able to do it more often and at work.

What is your proudest work moment?
Seeing my students graduate from college.

What is your proudest non-work moment?
Being married to my wife, Amanda, and the birth of my two sons (Clayton and Dillon). Clayton spent two years at UNT and is at Mississippi State, and Dillon is currently an undergraduate student. 

What fact about you might surprise your colleagues?
My family was in the NASA space program. My father was a recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom for his work at NASA. I also served in the U.S. Navy and during Operation Desert Storm.

WHAT'S YOUR FAVORITE...
Inspirational Hero?: My father is my inspirational hero. He taught me the skills I needed to be a productive member of society. When things got tough in my life, he never gave up on me. 
Place to visit?: London, England. I have friends that live there. Love the history and the food. Love teaching at the local universities; knowing that you are teaching in a building that was built in the 1300s. I have a good friend that lives in the Tower of London. Love to go there and walk the grounds after dark. 
Charitable cause?: Scottish Rite for Children and Shriners Burns Hospital. I spend outside time involved with patients and staff of these two hospitals. The good deeds they do for people humbles me every day.

Despite the challenges you may be facing, practicing gratitude has been proven to increase resilience. Did you know that adding a daily gratitude list to your day can improve your health, relationships, mindset and helps performance in challenging situations?

Now, on to matters that can cause us a measure of strain this time of year.

Did holiday shopping on Black Friday and Cyber Monday sales stress you out? You're not alone. Sign up for webinars this month that can bring peace and calm, such as "Manage Holiday Stress" or "COVID Holiday Blues, Strategies for Coping" with UNT counselor Tamara Knapp-Grosz. Feel like you need to watch your spending habits? You'll learn a tip or two from "Putting Your Debit on a Diet." Find these helpful webinars and many more here.   
 
Holiday shoppers, don't miss these discounts

The Employees Retirement System of Texas (ERS) offers the Discount Purchase Program to all state employees participating in the Texas Employees Group Benefits Program (GBP) and their immediate families. Check your list twice, with hundreds of discounts from recognized vendors on big-ticket items like computers, electronics and even cars; plus everyday necessities like grocery delivery. Online shopping is a great way to social distance and avoid crowded stores.

Employees can access these discounts at beneplace.com/discountprogramERS. Register by entering an email address and creating a password. Once logged in, employees can view categories of discounts such as “Holiday deals” or search for a particular vendor or item. Offers include discount codes and/or links to the vendor’s site where offers can be redeemed. (ERS does not endorse or sponsor any Discount Purchase Program service or service provider and does not benefit from members’ participation in the program.)

To learn more, visit Discount Purchase Program FAQs in the ERS website.

The Internal Revenue Service has confirmed the 2021 tax year limits that impact retirement plans and pertain to voluntary retirement savings plans:

  • $19,500 maximum contribution allowed to a 403b voluntary savings plan TSA (Tax Sheltered Annuity), available to all employees
  • $19,500 maximum contribution allowed to a 457 voluntary savings plan (Texa$aver), available to benefit-eligible employees
  • $6,500 additional catchup for participants who are over 50 years of age (for both the 403b TSA AND the 457 Texa$aver plan, for a combined limit of $26,000 to the 403b and $26,000 to the 457 in tax year 2021)
  • $58,000 annual limit for all contributions to 403b plans (your Optional Retirement Plan/ORP and your 403b voluntary savings plan combined)
  • $290,000 annual salary cap.  Earnings over $290,000 will not be included in retirement account for non-grandfathered ORP participants and TRS participants

Not participating in the voluntary retirement savings plans? Learn more about these great ways to tax-shelter retirement income via easy monthly payroll deduction here. Questions? Please contact us at HRBenefits@untsystem.edu, and we’ll be glad to help. And, we can help calculate your maximum contribution upon request.

Travis Hicks

Travis Hicks, HR Generalist, UNT System talks about leading through change in the "Leaders on Leading" audio clip series. This series features quick, entertaining, and motivating Q&As with organizational leaders on having an impact and developing people. Listeners will get real-world advice, learn practical tips, and hear inspirational stories to help improve their own leadership skills.

Joanna Hussey

 

 

Joanna Hussey, Executive Assistant to Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs, UNT, talks about leadership perspectives on diversity, equity and inclusion in the "Leaders on Leading" audio clip series. This series features quick, entertaining, and motivating Q&As with organizational leaders on having an impact and developing people. Listeners will get real-world advice, learn practical tips, and hear inspirational stories to help improve their own leadership skills.

Dr. La'cresha Moore

Dr. La'Cresha Moore, Assistant Vice Provost, Student & Academic Success, UNTHSC, talks about leadership authenticity in the "Leaders on Leading" audio clip series. This series features quick, entertaining, and motivating Q&As with organizational leaders on having an impact and developing people. Listeners will get real-world advice, learn practical tips, and hear inspirational stories to help improve their own leadership skills.