PSB’s Mena offers health expertise as city, state begin to reopen

As state and local leaders take steps to ease COVID-19 restrictions, Dr. Kristina Mena is helping to shape health guidance needed to reopen Texas and El Paso.

The Public Service Board Vice-Chair for El Paso Water is a renowned expert in human health risk assessment and serves on several advisory panels offering health expertise to devise guidance strategies for Gov. Greg Abbott and El Paso leaders.

The set of recommendations focus on when and how to re-open safely.

Mena, regional dean of the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston (UTHealth) School of Public Health’s El Paso campus, was first asked to join a task force assembled from colleagues at UTHealth who took the lead on offering health guidance to the governor. That effort led to another health subgroup at the state level, as well as a local partnership that is addressing COVID-19 testing efforts and personal protective equipment sourcing and allocation in El Paso.

“I feel very fortunate to be part of those conversations statewide and hear the details regarding what types of tests should be implemented and who should be tested,” Mena said. “What I am learning statewide, I am offering that input to inform El Paso.”

Locally, Mena partnered with Emma Schwartz, president of the Medical Center of the Americas Foundation, and Tracy Yellen, CEO of the Paso Del Norte Health Foundation, to address El Paso’s needs and how the community can better respond to the pandemic.

Mena’s work also continues in building a human health risk assessment framework that incorporates various aspects of the novel coronavirus – such as dose response and environmental persistence – and host parameters or measurable characteristics related to exposure and vulnerability.

The assessment will identify factors that drive health risks so that mitigation strategies can be developed.

This is a role Mena has been preparing for her entire career.

Since the 1990s, the environmental microbiologist has contributed her expertise to a human health risk assessment framework on viruses so that transmission mitigation strategies could be developed. Mena also offered her expertise during the 2016 Summer Olympics in Brazil, when waterborne viruses were threatening the health of Olympic athletes.

Photo courtesy EP Water

Recently, Mena’s expertise on risk assessment is being applied toward NASA and International Space Station flight crew missions.

“I have learned so much from this pandemic,” Mena said. “What’s interesting is my whole dissertation work in the 1990s was mitigating the transmission of viruses within communities. Here I am 25 years later, and this is what’s happening.”

Working on these COVID-19 advisory panels has proven invaluable to Mena, not to mention the prized connections she has made.

Mena has worked with a variety of experts in many industries, from renowned medical experts at the state level to hotel, retail and builders association officials locally.

To fulfill a recent request, Mena and UTHealth colleagues led a recent webinar for the construction industry on workplace health guidelines.

“I’m proud of who I work for, and it’s been a great example of why UTHealth has six campuses,” Mena said. “It’s not just about providing educational opportunities for students but during a practical public health crisis we are able to bring educational outreach.”

Mena praised EPWater for being proactive in implementing workplace safeguards early in the pandemic.  “With the novel coronavirus, our world’s focus has primarily been on influencing the host in terms of social distancing to minimize transmission among people,” she said. “We need to remember, though, the importance of the potential role of our environment, such as surfaces, to become contaminated and serve as a potential source of transmission.”