A Conversation With José Romero to Celebrate National Hispanic Heritage Month

October 14, 2020 | ASTHO Staff

Hispanic Heritage Month takes place annually from September 15-October 15 to celebrate the history, culture, achievements, and influence of the Hispanic and Latinx community in the U.S. In recognition of this month, ASTHO interviewed one of our newest members, José Romero, MD, Secretary of Health at the Arkansas Department of Health. In this blog post, he speaks with us about how his experiences as a Hispanic working in healthcare have impacted him and his leadership style.

You’ve had a rich career that spans the entire health system—academia, basic and applied science, medicine, clinician, and senior public health official for the state. How have these experiences informed your current leadership style in Arkansas?

By serendipity, my experiences in these areas have become incredibly valuable in my current role. My basic science research experience has allowed me to better understand the use of diagnostic approaches for SARS-Cov-2 infection. Similarly, as a site principal investigator examining numerous point-of-care assays for respiratory viruses I gained experience on the utility and weaknesses of these tests for the rapid diagnosis of respiratory viral pathogens.

I have had the privilege of serving as a member of the Food and Drug Administration’s Vaccines and Biologic Products Advisory Committee and as its chairperson. That experience gave me an in-depth understanding of the vaccine licensing process in the U.S. Most recently, my involvement with the CDC’S Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices, as a member and chairperson, has informed me of how recommendations for licensed vaccines are made. As a member of its COVID-19 vaccines work group, I have had a unique opportunity to examine data regarding these novel vaccines as it became available.

While I fully acknowledge that I do not have formal training in public heath, I believe that, although unplanned, my career experiences have converged to provide me with the background and knowledge necessary to lead our Department of Health (DOH) at this time.

What do you see as some of the most pressing public health issues in your state or nationally facing the Hispanic and Latinx community?

I believe the most pressing public health issue facing Hispanics/Latinos in Arkansas is the COVID pandemic. Latinos comprise 7% of the population of Arkansas yet account for 18% of all cases of COVID-19. Delivering linguistically appropriate education on measures to prevent infection and spread of COVID-19 to Hispanics/Latinos is a priority for the Arkansas DOH.

Because multi-generation family units are common in the Hispanic/Latino community, education on mitigation is important to protect elders living within those families. Quarantining poses challenges for single breadwinner families which has required that the DOH partner with community organization in order to deal with food and financial insecurity to allow them to maintain quarantine.

At a recent DOH Hispanic/Latino advisory group meeting, the majority of participants expressed reluctance or refusal to receive a COVID-19 vaccine when available due to concerns for safety of the vaccine and fear they were being used as study subjects to determine vaccine safety prior widespread release. There is similar distrust and concern among Hispanics/Latinos at the national level. A recent survey indicated that approximately one-third of Hispanics surveyed would not receive a COVID-19 vaccine, if available, and another third was uncertain of taking it.

The possibility, in the near term, of the availability of COVID-19 vaccines requires that education be provided to the Hispanic/Latino population regarding these vaccines, vaccine safety, and the reasons to receive them. Efforts to inform and educate Hispanic/Latinos needs to begin before these vaccines are on the threshold of release.

COVID-19 has disproportionately impacted the Latinx community and other communities of color. What are some of the outreach strategies the Arkansas DOH have taken to address this disparity and connect with Hispanic groups in your state?

Shortly after the first case of COVID-19 infection in Arkansas, the DOH partnered with Spanish language radio stations to give daily updates and education for the prevention of SARS-CoV-2 infection. Linguistically appropriate information about COVID-19 has been disseminated through advertising in community-based Spanish language newspapers. The DOH has an ongoing weekly interview with a reported from one of the national Spanish-speaking networks.

With assistance from the CDC, the DOH identified social media platforms most used by Hispanic/Latinos in Arkansas and has used them to transmit COVID-19-related information to the Spanish speaking communities in the state. The DOH has created a Hispanic/Latino advisory council the brings community-related issues to the DOH. We have worked with community organizations to address issues of food insecurity brought about by the need to quarantine entire families due to SARS-CoV-2 infection and exposure.

DOH has begun community education on COVID vaccines through lectures to Latino and other community organizations to increase awareness and knowledge.

How has your Hispanic heritage influenced how you approach this critical role leading the public health agency?

My experiences as a Latino have provided a deeper understanding of the challenges faced by the minority populations in Arkansas. Thanks to my parents, I am fluent in Spanish, which allows me to communicate directly with the Spanish speaking Latino/Hispanic population in my state.

Are there any Hispanic leaders today or in the past that have influenced your leadership style?

I grew up in California during the 60s and 70s and witnessed the work of Cesar Chavez in organizing farm workers. Others that have been examples of leadership to me are Francisco Villa and Emiliano Zapata. All three, from humble backgrounds, rose to affect major social changes during their lifetimes.