Dr. Jose Romero doesn’t see himself as a character in a Michael Crichton novel. On the contrary, Arkansas’ newest secretary of health is a self-described academic/physician. That’s all. It just so happens that his expertise lies in infectious disease and immunization practices.
But there is a pandemic going on, and who other than a humble doctor/scholar to be thrust into a position of leading an entire state through it? The Andromeda Strain, anyone?
While any comparison of Crichton’s 1969 thriller about a deadly extraterrestrial microorganism to COVID-19 is, of course, a stretch, Romero did answer the call when his adopted state needed him. Just as university researchers like him did in the novel.
His ascent to health secretary, a cabinet-level position, wasn’t so much a battlefield promotion, except that it kind of was one. Romero was chief medical officer for the Arkansas Department of Health when he was tabbed by Gov. Asa Hutchinson in July of 2020 to serve as the state’s interim secretary of health. Former Health Secretary Dr. Nate Smith had just left for the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in Atlanta, and the pandemic didn’t leave much room for an exhaustive candidate search. Turns out, there was no need for one, even though the job had never been on Romero’s radar.
By August, the interim tag had been removed, and Romero now advises Hutchinson daily on the state’s most pressing issue, serves as the face of what’s currently the state’s most prominent agency and leads a department of more than 1,000 employees. Such job descriptions underscore his inclusion on AMP’s list of 2021 Influencers of the Year, even if his under-the-radar style belies it.
Hutchinson called Romero’s promotion an easy decision when he announced it this past summer. Romero had already been serving as chair of the CDC’s Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices (ACIP), a prestigious position that entails providing primary guidance on vaccines to the federal government and one that’s helped him build a national reputation.
“He has been involved in our fight against COVID-19 from the first day,” Hutchinson said when he took the interim off Romero’s new title. “His vast knowledge of viral infections has been integral to our decision making as we have refined our response to the pandemic.”
Born in Mexico and raised in California, Romero harbored dreams of becoming a community pediatrician in areas of need. But his path ultimately led him to academia and the University of Nebraska Medical Center, where he served other areas of need as director for the offices of Minority Health Education and Research and Latino Health-Related Research Affairs. In 2008, the path detoured south. Romero joined the staff of the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences and Arkansas Children’s Hospital as director of the Section of Pediatric Infectious Diseases. He also directed clinical trials research at Arkansas Children’s Research Institute before moving over to ADH. Since his arrival in Arkansas, he’s been a member of the Arkansas Vaccine Medical Advisory Committee, serving as its chair since 2015. And Romero has carried the title of ADH Pediatric Tuberculosis Physician since 2012.
The sudden transition from working primarily behind the scenes to an overtly public role has been an adjustment, Romero admits. “I never expected to be in this role. I came to work at the Health Department as CMO and thought that would be my role here. I didn’t plan to become Secretary of Health, but it’s quite an honor.”
The mechanism for guiding the state through a pandemic was already in place when Romero became the face of ADH. And his years of experience in Nebraska and as section chief for infectious diseases at UAMS and Children’s afforded him a degree of comfort with an administrative role. Whether it’s behind the scenes or in a cabinet-level position, Romero relies on a tried-and-true method of leadership.
“A leader has to lead by example, and that example has to be transmitted throughout the institution,” he said. “I hope that I set the example by showing a work ethic that others can look to. I don’t expect my epidemiologists to be working weekends and holidays if I’m not working weekends or holidays. My chief of staff has asked me if I should take some time off, and what I’ve told her is that I’ll take time off when this thing is under control. That’s an important leadership skill, at least to me.”
Having worked both behind the scenes and in front of the cameras, Romero places special emphasis on recognizing hard work throughout the department and encouraging his employees. “It’s always important, and even more so in a pandemic or in a stress situation like this, that you convey gratitude down through the ranks,” he stressed.
Romero is quick to deflect any praise to his entire ADH team, which he said has acted as a sounding board and helped smooth his transition from creating plans to implementing them.
“Quite frankly, they keep you from making mistakes,” he said of his employees. “They point out the pitfalls and the advantages, and then it’s up to me to make the decisions. That was probably the hardest part of transitioning into this role — that I’m more of a decision-maker than an implementer of ideas. And that’s not something that we’re trained for as academic physicians.”
Romero warns against thinking the pandemic is over just because vaccines are being produced and in the early stages of distribution. “We have to prepare ourselves for more months of hard work,” he said.
As someone who’s dedicated his professional life to public health, Romero intends to keep grinding whether he’s in front of the podium or not, whether he’s generating ideas or decisions.
“I don’t have time to be overwhelmed,” he said.