CDC director Shah leaving Maine for high-level federal post

Jan. 12—Dr. Nirav Shah, who gained near-celebrity status for leading the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention through the COVID-19 pandemic, is leaving Maine to take a high-level federal post, Gov. Janet Mills announced Thursday.

Shah has been appointed principal deputy director at the U.S. CDC. He will assume the new role in March as second in leadership under U.S. CDC Director Rochelle Walensky. The U.S. CDC is headquartered in Atlanta.

Shah said Thursday that he got to know Walensky through his role as past president of the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials. That group would advise Walensky and other federal officials about what was working and not working in the state responses to the COVID-19 pandemic.

A message to my fellow Mainers: https://t.co/ndweRww2R1

— Nirav D. Shah (@nirav_mainecdc) January 12, 2023

State officials will conduct a national search for the next Maine CDC director, Mills said. In the interim, Deputy Director Nancy Beardsley will serve as acting director, a position she held before Shah's arrival.

Shah, 45, was hired as the Maine CDC director in 2019 and soon became a familiar face through regular COVID briefings, using a relatable, down-to-earth manner to convey complicated topics and urge Maine people to help contain the virus. At some points after the pandemic began in March 2020, Shah held daily or near-daily news conferences that were broadcast to the general public, often infusing his talks with humor and pop culture references to break up dry discussions, sprinkling in references to Prince and Groundhog Day in between explanations of viral pathogens.

In addition to providing the latest information about COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations and deaths, Shah informed Maine people about the state's responses and restrictions such as mask mandates and limits on gathering sizes and the rollout of vaccination clinics.

In an interview with the Press Herald after making the announcement Thursday, Shah reflected on his three-and-a-half years as the Maine CDC director, and how during the pandemic he became so well-known that his name and photo appeared on everything from chocolate bars (the Shah bar) to "In Dr. Shah We Trust" coffee mugs and hand-crafted quilts. Some of his fans created a Facebook group honoring Shah, who is originally from Wisconsin and the son of Indian immigrants. He previously worked in public health in Cambodia and for Illinois state government.

Shah admits to sometimes being taken aback at his near-celebrity status in Maine, but said it was "very gratifying."

"Especially because I was at that time a relative newcomer, it was surprising at times a little bit," he said. "Ultimately, I think it tells you a lot more about the people in Maine than anything else. The fact that you can be a brown guy with a funny name, not from Maine, and you can come here to be seen as somebody you might want to listen to for something of importance. That says something about the people of Maine."

Shah, who earns about $255,000 a year in his current job, arrived at a time when the Maine CDC was beginning to rebuild its workforce under Mills and Jeanne Lambrew, Maine's health and human services commissioner. The Maine CDC went from 333 employees in 2019, when Mills took over from former Gov. Paul LePage, to 404 currently.

"Since his arrival in Maine before the pandemic, and every day throughout it, Dr. Shah has been a trusted adviser to me and an extraordinary leader of the Maine CDC. But even more than that, he was a trusted adviser and a leader to the people of Maine during one of the greatest public health crises of our time," Mills said in a statement.

Dr. Andy Mueller, MaineHealth's CEO, said that Shah led a "top tier" response to the pandemic.

"Dr. Shah's calm and sensible advice, as well as his leadership during our vaccination efforts, saved countless lives," Mueller said.

Sen. Susan Collins also praised Shah.

"During his tenure as Maine CDC director, Dr. Nirav Shah's briefings during the pandemic were a source of calm, and he provided helpful advice on how Mainers could protect themselves, their families and their communities," Collins said in a statement her office emailed Thursday night. "Maine is grateful for his service, and I wish him all the best on his new leadership role at the U.S. CDC."

VACCINATION PROGRAM A SUCCESS

The vaccine rollout began in early 2021 and initially relied on largely an age-based prioritization system and on mass vaccination clinics such as the Portland Expo and Cross Insurance Center in Bangor. Maine has consistently had one of the highest vaccination rates in the nation, and currently stands at the fourth most-vaccinated state at 83%, according to the U.S. CDC.

More than 3.2 million doses have so far been delivered into the arms of Maine people, including the original series, and up to three booster shots.

Shah said while the logistical undertaking was massive, some of what sticks with him are the personal stories.

"I remember I visited a vaccine clinic in Bangor, and I met an elderly couple who came down from Presque Isle or Caribou. They had largely just stayed inside during the pandemic and had separated themselves from everyone," Shah said. "For them, the vaccines were not just about preserving their health, but also allowed them to resume family and friend connections. The vaccines had profound societal impacts."

Not that Maine's response wasn't without controversy, and Shah also had faithful critics on social media who blamed him for what they considered overreactions to the virus.

The Maine CDC tangled with the owner of a Bethel brewery over its flouting COVID-19 rules. Others protested health worker vaccine mandates, how long COVID-19 restrictions were being maintained, and the canceling or curtailing of high school sports seasons. Notably, the 2020 high school tackle football season was wiped out in Maine, while most other New England states continued to play football.

But others praised Shah for being a steady presence during stormy times.

TALKING TO MOM

Shah said when he would answer questions about concerns that people had during the pandemic, he would often think of his mother, Shaila.

"When I was answering questions from the public, I was also answering questions for my mom. I was really worried about my mom (during the pandemic) remaining connected with her friends in Maine and not getting COVID," Shah said.

Shah lives with his mother and his wife, Kara Palamountain, a Northwestern University business professor, at their home in Brunswick.

In a video message to his followers on Twitter, Shah thanked Maine residents and noted the successes in the state in weathering the COVID-19 pandemic. Maine also had one of the nation's lowest COVID-19 death rates despite having an older population.

"As a state, as a community, we defied predictions, protected vulnerable residents and helped our neighbors with empathy and equity. We set the bar for how states responded to COVID-19," Shah said.

Shah's video message also featured some of his trademark humor, incorporating the lyrics of the 1980s song "Never Going to Give You Up" by Rick Astley and poking fun at the voluminous amounts of Diet Coke he is known to consume.

Shah said during his 3 1/2 years in the state, Maine residents "welcomed my family and me with open arms."

"My heart will remain in Maine, and I plan to be here often, even though my workplace will be elsewhere," Shah said. "I'll still be working for all of you. I will just be adding 330 million people to the mix."

Shah said "when I first came to Maine, someone told me this is a special place. And you know what, they were right."