State’s Top Health Official Leaves Arkansas for CDC Job

Health Secretary Dr. José Romero was the first Latino to hold such a high position in Arkansas.

headshot of Dr. José Romero, Arkansas Secretary of Health

Looking back, Dr. José Romero says he never could have predicted the trajectory of his career. He assumed his most recent post as Arkansas’s Secretary of Health in August 2020 after serving in the role in an interim capacity for four months. This week he’s preparing to leave the state for a new job at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 

During the last two years, he guided the state’s public health policies as the world navigated the COVID-19 pandemic. He provided updates on the spread of the virus and encouraged vaccinations all while enduring criticism from some Arkansas lawmakers and members of the public. Despite the challenges he’s faced, Romero says he’d still take the job even knowing what he does now.

“I’d do this again at the drop of a hat,” he says. “It has been invaluable to me…this opportunity came at a very unique time in my life and so I think I’m all the better for it.”

Born in Mexico City, Romero knew as a child that he wanted to help people. Combined with his love of science, he decided to pursue a career in medicine with the goal of opening a “practice in the barrio” where he could care for underprivileged Latinos. 

“That’s what led me into medicine, that simple desire to help people,” he says.

When he was about 17, Romero was living in the San Francisco Bay Area with his family. Determined to help his son go to medical school, Romero’s father called the Chicano Student Union at Stanford University where staff arranged an interview with a young neurosurgeon. During their conversation, the neurosurgeon spoke to Romero about how many people he could impact by becoming a teacher. The conversation clicked with Romero years later and he decided to go into academia. 

“What he was trying to tell me was that for every person you teach, that person is an extension of you…that was influential in my career decision because it was after residency that I made the decision that I wanted to stay in academics and then my whole career changed.”

Romero attended medical school at Universidad Autónoma de Guadalajara and completed his residency at Stony Brook University. In addition to being the state’s outgoing Secretary of Health, Romero is also the director of the Arkansas Department of Health, a professor of pediatrics and infectious diseases at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences and the immediate past chair of the CDC’s Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices. He is the first Latino to chair this committee and the first Latino to hold as high of a position as he has in the state of Arkansas. 

Being the first at something comes with a certain level of responsibility. Romero recognizes he represents Latinos and says it’s important he does a good job and gives it his all. Growing up, he didn’t have a lot of role models and having reached his current position, he hopes he can show young Latinos and other minority children that they can do it too.

“It’s not lost on me to be the first,” he says. “For me, I carry that in the back of my mind. It’s not the influence in my actions or my decisions, but I realize that being the first there’s always that scrutiny — well you know, can he do it, will he do it?”

Romero knew taking on the role of Arkansas Secretary of Health would be arduous, but says there were aspects he “was naive to believe would not be as difficult as they are.” One of the biggest challenges has been and will continue to be the politicization of the pandemic.

“That something as simple as a piece of cloth, a mask, could have political implications or could be moved into that political sphere when really, it is a way of protecting your health,” he says. “It’s not a way of limiting or taking away your liberty or your freedom.”

Dr. Romero anticipates more challenges for public health in the future and says that pushback will be detrimental. Public health officials have been vilified throughout the pandemic because “we’re the guys that are easy to beat up on,” but they generally don’t fight back hard to avoid creating more animosity, Romero says. To help process things in private, the state’s top health official is grateful to his wife for always lending an ear. 

“I don’t know [if] I would have gotten through this as well as I did without her support,” he says.

Despite all of the challenges, there have been some good things to come from the global health crisis. For example, the state’s health department is in a better position today than it was two years ago to deal with problems into the future, says Romero who credits his predecessor Dr. Nate Smith with starting that process. ADH has modernized its laboratory and IT systems, and developed the ability to test up to 3,400 specimens a day and provide genomic sequencing. 

Having such a public conversation about public health during the pandemic has led to another positive development — a greater awareness of the work of public health officials who previously did much of their job in the background.

“People understand what we do, now if they’re willing to embrace that and go forward is a different story,” he says.

Romero took on the role of Secretary of Health because he thought he could make a difference to the health and welfare of 3 million Arkansans. He feels the same way about his new job as director of the National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases. It’s a challenging time and there are things that need to be addressed within the CDC, but Romero’s not too worried because he’s always liked a challenge. As he transitions to the next phase of his career, he says he’s grateful for his colleagues in Arkansas.

“It’s actually been my honor and really what little success I’ve had is really the result of all of those around me because without it, I couldn’t have done it,” he says. “And I say this and I’ll say   it again and I mean it, any missteps or errors are mine, not the health department nor my team,” he says.

Dr. Romero’s last day as the Secretary of Health for the state of Arkansas is May 6. His first day of work at the CDC is June 6.

Antoinette Grajeda
Antoinette Grajeda

Antoinette Grajeda is an Arkansas-based journalist. She has covered race, culture, politics, health, education and the arts for NPR affiliates as well as print and digital publications since 2007.