Miami is a unique landscape for infectious diseases like COVID-19, expert says (includes audio interview)

Amid a record plunge in stocks, hundreds dead from coast to coast, and unmatched anguish, the United States continues to brace for the impact of the coronavirus pandemic.

The number of COVID-19 infections in Florida has ballooned to more than 1000. Miami-Dade County has surpassed Broward with almost 500 cases and the number climbing. As of March 26, there were 23 registered deaths related to Covid-19 in Florida.

Mary Jo Trepka is an infectious disease epidemiologist and a professor at FIU’s Robert Stempel College of Public Health & Social Work. She received her bachelor’s degree in chemistry and German at Grinnell College in 1986, then her master’s and residency in preventive medicine and public health at the University of Colorado, which she completed in 1994. 

She’s also worked at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Miami-Dade County Health Department, where she was the director of epidemiology and disease control.

“We have a lot of people from a lot of different places,” says Trepka. “Epidemiology here is as interesting as it is challenging.”

Trepka’s area of specialty is HIV and how care is delivered so those affected can be healthy. Because of her expertise in infectious epidemiology, she also knows a thing or two about this pandemic.

She explains there are a handful of variables making Miami a particular focal point for infection. There are the subtropical climate, proximity to Central and South America, and the diverse ecosystem, among other things.

“[Because] of our close connection to Caribbean and Latin American countries, we’ve had issues of imported cases of dengue, zika [that] become local problems,” said the epidemiologist.   

Though weather has been a topic of discussion as it relates to the virus, Trepka is skeptical, pointing out there have been no scientific studies. “I think it would be pure speculation to say what the weather might do to the coronavirus,” said the doctor.

Like Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) or Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS), COVID-19 manifests itself with similar symptoms in varied patients, she says. 

“Most people who get [them] do not experience a severe course of the illness,” explained the doctor, “Those who get sick seem to be primarily older.”

However, this does not mean the three infections are the same.  

“[COVIDF-19] can be transmitted from person to person by people who may not realize they’re sick. From this perspective, this virus is much more difficult to contain than SARS or MERS,” explained the doctor.

Trepka states the main difference between COVID-19 and some types of the flu is that humankind has no immunity to COVID-19. The human body has not experienced it.

“There is not even a vaccine for it,” said the doctor.

Does social distancing really work?

“Social distancing is supposed to slow down transmission, so we don’t have so many ill people at one time,“ the doctor explained. “The problem is we don’t have an unlimited number of intensive care unit beds in the United States.”

The aim of social distancing is to slow the spread or  “flatten the curve,” as some doctors say.  Trepka said there is historic evidence that social distancing does, in fact, work. One example: the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic.

It is estimated that the Spanish flu infected around 500 million people and resulted in 50 million worldwide deaths, 675,000 of those in the United States. This pandemic was caused by an H1N1 virus with avian origin. There was no consensus as to why the virus originated. 

Despite there being historic evidence supporting the effects of social distancing, Trepka said success ultimately depends on the people.  

“[Social distancing] seemed to really work in China, only because they were really strict,” Trepka pointed out. ”They were not allowing people out of their homes. We’re not there yet.” 

Widely reported by local outlets, spring breakers in South Florida did not allow social distancing to ruin their break despite the serious recommendations against. Trepka weighed in on this issue, “we’re all in this together.”

“We need to slow down transmission because this virus has a higher mortality rate than the flu, meaning more people become infected and die,” explained the doctor. “People of all ages can die of this.” 

Refraining from pointing out mistakes related to the handling of the pandemic, ruling it as “not helpful,”  Trepka has a suggestion instead: everyone needs to be on the same page. 

“Everybody needs to do their part and prevent further cases of COVID-19,” she said.

Originally from Bogotá, Colombia, Monica is working on her broadcast journalism bachelor's degree. She loves to write and is passionate about sports, the art of interviewing and strives to become an on-air sports talent. She produces digital content and is a social media manager.