Latinas in Healthcare: A Response to COVID-19

By Nilda Melissa Diaz

Latinas have been at the forefront during the all-hands-on-deck emergency response to COVID-19. In local communities all the way to the federal government, their knowledge has help shape how the nation has handled this historic crisis. Meet Dr. Adelaida Rosario, Lieutenant, U.S. Public Health Service, Separations Specialist Office of the Surgeon General, and Dr. Melissa Mercado, Behavioral Scientist, Division of Violence Prevention at CDC’s National Center for Injury Prevention and Control. While their stories and specialties are different, their passions are the same: to help our communities. Their work started long before the coronavirus, growing up with the support of their familias and, as Dr. Rosario says, the stubborn perseverance to work that represents Latinas.

Dr. Adelaida Rosario
Lieutenant, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Separations Specialist, Office of the Surgeon General

“Public Health Service is a key player in providing needs such as government testing, vaccines, and examinations,” shares Dr. Adelaida M. Rosario, Scientist, Office of the Surgeon General, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. “We have at least half of the quarters deployed.”

An expert in minority health Dr. Rosario has two concerns regarding COVID-19 and Latinos: The amount of community cooperation to optimize keeping each other safe, and fear of misinformation.

Dr. Rosario (right) receives the USPHS Commissioned Corps Humanitarian Service and Global Health Award with Team Remdesivir.

“It’s unfortunate the way COVID brought attention to these disparities,” she shares. According to the National Institute of Minority Health, some of those disparities include: language barrier, lack of access to preventative care and lack of health insurance.

Joining the Surgeon General’s Office months before the pandemic as a scientist providing expert knowledge on minority health disparities and social welfare, she believes it is important to be in the community to help and assist in as much as possible. Whether it is medical or health training, her team and office provide immediate response to the needs of communities affected by disaster, be it natural or man-made.

Dr. Rosario looks over at the Tokyo Tower after a long day during her deployment to assist the COVID-19 positive American passengers hospitalized in Japan from the Diamond Princess cruise ship.

Dr. Rosario’s journey to the Surgeon General’s Office has been beyond what she could’ve ever imagined.

Born in Guam and raised in Miami to a Guamanian mother and Cuban father in a traditional immigrant household, “you’re in survival mode,” she shares. “You’re indoctrinated to pursue traditional careers.”

It was in Guam that, after spending time with her maternal family, she decided to pursue a master’s degree in Micronesian Studies.

She believes her future presented itself at that moment.

“The public health needs [in Guam] are so severe that I remember telling myself I want to get to a point in my life I want to help at a level that makes it different,” she shares.

After completing her master’s, she returned to Florida and, in 2014, completed a Ph.D. in Social Welfare. That same year, she started working at the National Institute of Health Minority Health Institute in Maryland. It was here that she learned about U.S. Dr. Adelaida Rosario. Public Health Service.

“I thought it was the most spectacular opportunity to pursue,” she shares. “To not only have this federal position but help make decisions and impact nationwide.”

Today she credits mentors for lending a hand in her career journey as she did not arrive at OSG alone. Dr. Rosario encourages Latinas to pursue public health. “It’s critical that Latinas pursue public health. This envelope needs to continue to be pushed,” she shares. “And, we do it in a very graceful fashion.”

Dr. Melissa Mercado Crespo
Division of Violence Prevention, National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)

Dr. Melissa Mercado Crespo, a behavioral health scientist at CDC’s National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, grew up knowing she could end up working in the healthcare industry. Her curious and inquisitive nature was displayed from an early age at school and church. “I loved to play doctor and teacher,” shares Dr. Mercado Crespo.

But the path to become a behavioral scientist for the Division of Violence Prevention, National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) was not linear. She started her bachelor’s at the University of Puerto Rico as a biology student to study medicine. Then doubts to continue that path arose. It was around that time that Dr. Mercado Crespo learned about Healthy People, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services program that promotes health.

“I fell in love,” she says. “I love healthcare. I get to merge passion of research with health and communications.” She finished her studies, including two master’s degrees in Puerto Rico in epidemiology and communications. Dr. Mercado Crespo obtained a Ph.D. University of South Florida’s College of Public Health.

With more than 15 years of work experience in multicultural settings, including deployments during multiple emergency public health responses, Dr. Mercado Crespo was all hands-on deck once the coronavirus hit the U.S.

“It became a public emergency response,” she shares. “The pandemic affected everything.”

Dr. Mercado Crespo conceptualized, designed, and published CDC’s COVID-19 Parental Resource Kit, which helps parents manage the emotional well beings of their children through practical tools. Available both in English and Spanish, the kit includes:

• Age-group specific information on social, emotional and behavioral challenges faced by children and youth during COVID-19

• Resources to support parents and child/youth-serving adults in helping their children/youth cope: Webpage content

• Door hangers

• Shareable social media graphics and Postcards

• Game Board, Children’s Activity Book, Scavenger Hunt game

Also serving as CDC spokesperson for Spanish media, Dr. Mercado Crespo asks Latinas with an interest in health outside of traditional medicine to keep looking.

“We need you,” she shares. “Put yourself out there. Take that step, take that risk. Even if it’s difficult, persevere.”

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