Arkansas Secretary of Health Dr. Nathaniel Smith has been hired by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta to serve as deputy director for public health service and implementation science.
Smith’s last day leading the state’s Health Department will be Aug. 28, Gov. Asa Hutchinson said Tuesday.
Smith was named to his current post a year ago, when the governor reorganized state government.
Previously, he served as director of the Arkansas Department of Health. Gov. Mike Beebe named Smith state health officer in 2013. He began working for the state Health Department in 2004.
A specialist in infectious diseases, he also served as state epidemiologist and as deputy director for health programs.
“The Center for Disease Control is one of the premier health departments in the United States of America that provides national guidance, that has such a critical role in this pandemic,” the governor said. “And one thing, regrettably, that they do well — and I shouldn’t say regrettably but you’ll see the point of that — is that they’ve identified a real talent we have in Arkansas.”
Hutchinson thanked Smith for his service, and announced that Dr. Jose Romero will serve as interim secretary of health.
Romero is a pediatric infectious disease specialist. He is director of pediatric infectious diseases at Arkansas Children’s Hospital and a professor of pediatrics at the University of Medical Sciences, where he’s worked for 11 years.
Before that, Romero was a professor of pediatric medicine at the University of Nebraska. He chairs the national advisory committee on immunization practices.
“So, once again, we have a national star that will come in to help give us guidance in the future,” Hutchinson said.
Smith, asked if he was leaving because he disagreed with the governor’s pandemic response, said, “There is absolutely no disagreement with the approach that we’ve been taking here. Working for the governor has been one of the highlights of my career, and it made it very difficult to make this decision.”
Smith said the move has been in the works since February, when his predecessor at the CDC, Dr. Stephen Redd, retired. Colleagues who worked for the CDC encouraged Smith to apply for the deputy director post.
As of Tuesday afternoon, the state had recorded 6,180 COVID-19 cases, up from 6,029 on Monday, and 119 deaths from the virus.