Dr. Carlos Salama: Protecting Latinos Against Infectious Diseases

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Carlos Salama’s father helped people every day as a physician.

Inspired by what he saw, Salama knew at an early age that he, too, wanted to help others the way his father did.

“People were just very, very grateful for what he provided them. I thought, ‘I want to do this,’” Salama said.

Salama was born in Brooklyn, New York, to Argentinian parents.

Salama’s mother and father first came to the United States in the mid-1960s for his father’s residency after he completed medical school at the University of Buenos Aires.

Salama recalls helping his parents and two siblings in the doctor’s office.

“I used to go with my father to the office, sometimes on the weekends, and help them. My mother was the office assistant, but I would do it sometimes, and I just thought [my father] had a nice kind of job,” Salama said.

Today, having fulfilled his dream to become a doctor who helps people, Salama is championing infection control in his role as an infectious disease physician at Elmhurst Hospital Center and professor of medicine at Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York.

Salama and His Start in Medicine

Salama worked hard to become a doctor.

Gravitating toward the study of internal medicine, he especially enjoyed immunology, microbiology, and related classes. He earned his medical degree from Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai. He did his medical residency at Mount Sinai Hospital.

During this time, he fell in love – twice.

First, he met his future wife.

He also developed a passion for the local community.

“I ended up going to do my residency, where I was also at Mount Sinai, and I rotated through Elmhurst, both in medical school and residency, I fell in love with Elmhurst,” Salama said.

The community around Elmhurst Hospital Center in Queens, New York, serves a mostly Latino immigrant community with a diverse population with high rates of poverty.

“It’s such a wonderful community, you know, even though it’s very vulnerable, and under resourced in terms of health care, and all these other issues that come up with our health care system,” Salama said.

The People Who Helped Him on His Mission to Help People

Reflecting on his time in medical school and beyond, Salama acknowledged his mentors, like Dr. Edward Bottone.

“I first met him in medical school and, and his love for microbiology really came through and he was so passionate about all the field,” Salama said.

Dr. Joseph Masci also served as a mentor and inspiration for Salama.

“Joe Masci, in my mind is just a giant in the field of infectious disease, especially in the New York City area. And the passion he had for the field for treating underserved communities is something that rubs off on all of us,” Salama said.

Of course, Salama’s father is still one of his biggest influences.

“My father still practices. He’s 95 and he takes care of all immigrants in a small evening practice now that he has where he lives, so he’s still in the field,” Salama said.

The Care He Brings to the Doctor’s Office

What Salama found most important is to provide culturally competent care.

“When I was there, I put into place programs that are going to help the communities that we take care of, including the Latino community,” he said.

Salama and his clinical team worked with local and Latino community-based organizations for Latinos to be brought directly to their clinic for care.

Salama also worked to provide an environment where Latinos in the community could feel comfortable.

“I really tried primarily to hire bilinguals, because when 70% of your patients speak Spanish, we have a higher Latino rate in our clinic than in the general population, you need to be able to communicate with them,” he said.

The COVID-19 Pandemic and Infection Control

COVID-19 heavily impacted the Latino population.

This was especially the case for Salama and his team at Elmhurst Hospital Center.

Dr. Salama speaking at a UN Conference in 2023.

Much of the Latino community in the area, which comes from Central America, Mexico, Guatemala, Ecuador, struggle with diseases – which puts them at increased risk for severe outcomes from COVID-19.

“There’s high rates of metabolic syndrome, and so a lot of our patients were slightly overweight, maybe diabetic or pre-diabetic, had high blood pressure. So, we were seeing 30-year-old men coming in and dying. It was really hard, what we went through here,” Salama said.

Elmhurst became a COVID-19 care hospital, teaching Salama and his team more about the importance of infection control and prevention.

Today, Salama still wears PPE, or “personal protective equipment,” when caring for patients.

He also stressed the importance of getting tested for COVID-19 when needed.

“Wherever you are working in the hospital, if you’re sick, you should test yourself,” Salama said. “The same thing goes for patients who are sick, you know. Do a rapid test or come in and be seen and say, ‘Hey, I may have COVID.’ Let’s get tested.”

Hand hygiene is also an important infection control practice for Salama.

“Everybody should be washing their hands before and after every patient contact. I will I wash my hands if I grabbed the ophthalmoscope or the otoscope, or the blood pressure machine,” Salama said.

Salama also advises his colleagues to take advantage of resources that provide information regarding infection control and infectious diseases.

That includes Project Firstline,  the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) training and education collaborative designed to ensure all healthcare workers, no matter their role or educational background, have the infection control knowledge and understanding they need and deserve to protect themselves, their patients, and their coworkers.

“There is a wealth of infection prevention information out there about how to prevent infections,” Salama said. “We should be listening to the CDC.”

Advocating for More Latinos in the Healthcare Workforce

Salama is making sure to help the next generation of doctors, too.

He knows that bilingual, bicultural physicians and healthcare teams are the key to providing equitable care for the rising Latino population.

Dr. Salama and his son in Portugal.

“Being bilingual is a huge resource in medicine. Everybody wants bilingual doctors now because you know, immigrant populations are not just in LA and, and, and Miami and New York City, they’re everywhere,” Salama said. “They are a huge resource and so they need to really recognize that.”

Salama’s message to young Latinos looking to the medical field is to remember the communities and people from which they came.

“Remember your brothers and sisters who are struggling, who maybe didn’t have the more privileged upbringing,” he said. “Dedicate some of your time to helping those people because they need you. No one else is going to step up and do that work if we don’t do it ourselves for our own people.”

Continuing His Own Journey of Learning 

Salama is always looking to enhance his own skills, too.

That is why he took initiative to collaborate with fellow Latino physicians by joining the Leadership Fellowship Program from the National Hispanic Medical Association (NHMA).

The program helps develop leadership skills among NHMA physician members to boost their eligibility for decision-making and executive positions across private, state, and federal levels.

“I think the best part of this was really the colleagues that I made. The friends that I made in this program were really valuable,” Salama said.

Fellows participate in NHMA’s annual meeting and weekly training sessions on different issues facing Latinos, including infection prevention and control.

“Besides the fact that we had a lot of really good talks, and the program was very instructional,” Salama said. “It’s been one of the most enjoyable things I’ve done in years.”

Back in his community, Salama continues to do his best to take care of patients and their needs inside and outside the doctor’s office.

“My main thrust in global health has been to collaborate with local communities, organizations, to try to help our Latino community have social care that will help them stay engaged in medical care,” Salama said.

Salama believes in building health equity, where everyone has a fair, just opportunity to be their healthiest.

“It’s just the right thing to do to provide everyone with health care, so they can have a good life, a healthy life, pursue their dreams, have a good job, raise a family, and make families healthy,” Salama said.

What Can You Do to Promote Infection Control in Your Healthcare Setting?

Like Salama, you can help keep yourself, your colleagues, and your patients safe from infectious disease threats by building your infection control knowledge!

To show your dedication, sign this pledge to complete an infection control training or activity through CDC’s Project Firstline!

You can also share infection control training opportunities with healthcare colleagues via LinkedIn with our Project Firstline social media toolkit.

You can access more information about infection prevention and control in healthcare by visiting resources from CDC Project Firstline.

Salud America! at UT Health San Antonio is working with the National Hispanic Medical Association to bring Project Firstline infection control educational content to healthcare workers, so they are equipped with the knowledge they need to protect themselves, their facilities, and their patients (Latinos and all communities) from infectious disease threats in healthcare settings.

Check out some of the articles from this partnership:

Check out some of the Latino healthcare workers who are heroes for infection control:

Learn More about Project Firstline!

Editor’s Note: This article is part of a collaboration between Salud America!, the National Hispanic Medical Association, and the CDC’s Project Firstline. To find resources training materials, and other tools to bolster knowledge and practice of infection control, visit Project Firstline and view Salud America!’s infection control content.

By The Numbers By The Numbers

142

Percent

Expected rise in Latino cancer cases in coming years

This success story was produced by Salud America! with support from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

The stories are intended for educational and informative purposes. References to specific policymakers, individuals, schools, policies, or companies have been included solely to advance these purposes and do not constitute an endorsement, sponsorship, or recommendation. Stories are based on and told by real community members and are the opinions and views of the individuals whose stories are told. Organization and activities described were not supported by Salud America! or the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and do not necessarily represent the views of Salud America! or the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

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One Response to “Study: Latino Mortality Advantage Disappeared amid COVID-19”

  1. Sister Nancy Carol Traeger, SSND.

    As I read the articles, I was wondering IF some classes/workshops on budgeting would be helpful for the Latino families….Along with that, “throw in” some helps in where/how to shop for healthy foods, getting politically involved via the petitions that come our way each day (SNAP and WIC) These are essential programs and getting info regarding how to make one’s voice heard about these programs, especially around Congressional budgeting. It’s something I do as much as I can in order to help with keeping these programs going and improving. Thank you for the info and the opportunity to comment on these important issues for ALL families. As a former director of a homeless shelter for women and children, I had quite an education around the county-side of getting help, and learning to be patient while having to wait. I think shame is also a detriment for folks, having to get “charity” as it’s sometimes called.