Dr. José Romero, a pediatric infectious disease specialist, is chief medical officer at the Arkansas Department of Health and in May was appointed as the state’s interim secretary of health, effective July 1.
Previously, he was director of the pediatric infectious diseases section at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences and at Arkansas Children’s Hospital. He also teaches pediatrics at UAMS, where he’s worked since 2008. He chairs the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention’s Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices.
Romero earned his medical degree in 1977 from the Universidad Autónoma de Guadalajara in Mexico. He completed his internship at the Centro Médico del Noroeste in Hermosillo, Mexico, and his residency at the State University of New York at Stony Brook. Romero has completed numerous fellowships as well.
How does an infectious diseases specialist prepare himself for a pandemic?
Infectious diseases subspecialists can’t really prepare themselves specifically for a given pandemic because we never really know where the next pandemic will come from. Perhaps the best answer is that preparation comes through lifelong learning.
Our preparation for dealing with a pandemic begins during our residencies (internal medicine or pediatrics) as we learn the basics of our chosen specialty. During our fellowships we concentrate on learning how to diagnose, prevent and treat specific infectious diseases. At the same time, we learn the principles of epidemiology, public health, statistics, virology, microbiology, immunology and vaccinology. Following fellowship, most of what is learned about novel diseases and new developments is self-taught through reading journals or attending conferences.
Doctors are people with families too. What do you tell your family members about protecting themselves?
I stress the importance of social distancing, wearing of masks or face coverings, hand sanitization and avoiding crowds and unnecessary exposure to public places. These are the basic tenets for protection against COVID-19. My wife and I each keep one or two face masks in the car so that we have one wherever we go.
What is your biggest fear about the situation you’re walking into?
I can’t say that I have a “fear” per se. I think my major concern is managing the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic while at the same time attempting to maintain or restore to pre-pandemic levels the other essential functions of the Arkansas Department of Health. A salient example of this is the Arkansas Department of Health’s immunization program. Due to the pandemic, childhood immunizations have fallen in the state. We must help design programs to return these to pre-pandemic levels. Additionally, as we continue to deal with COVID-19, we must prepare for the upcoming influenza vaccination season.
Pandemic response aside, what else would you like to accomplish in your new role?
I’d like to begin to address the health care disparities among the minority populations in Arkansas. This is a complex issue that will not be remedied in a short time, so I don’t believe it will be “accomplished” during my tenure.
Other areas I’d like to have an impact on are HIV control and elimination, congenital and perinatal hepatitis C diagnosis and treatment, continued improvement of immunization rates among children and adults and improving the infrastructure of the Health Department and expanding its involvement in public health research.