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AUGUSTA, Maine — When members of the Maine Legislature’s health and human services committee convened in January, a co-chair had a question for the director of the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention: She wanted to know what kept Dr. Nirav Shah up at night.
“His first response was, ‘There’s a virus in China that I am concerned about,’” recalled Rep. Patricia Hymanson, D-York, who is also a physician.
Shah’s appearance in front of the committee came well before the first case of that virus — the new coronavirus — was confirmed in the United States. As the disease has turned into a global pandemic, infecting hundreds of thousands of people globally including 56 in Maine by Friday, Hymanson and others say they are impressed by Shah’s foresight and his communication skills.
Through daily press briefings and memorable analogies, the Maine CDC director is the public face of the state’s response to the coronavirus pandemic, providing updates on the number of cases each day and explaining to Mainers the importance of social distancing and other public health measures aimed at slowing the virus’ spread.
Flanked by a sign language interpreter, Shah, 42, usually takes questions from reporters for at least a half-hour. He has won over many viewers with a measured voice, detailed answers and simple but striking real-life examples.
“I have been very impressed with his presentation skills, what he has shared with all of us, what they are doing trying to keep everyone informed,” said Sen. Marianne Moore, R-Calais, who also sits on the Legislature’s health and human services committee.
Communicating during a public health crisis can be “tricky,” said Erika Ziller, a professor of public health at the University of Southern Maine, because it involves explaining complex scientific information and statistics that are easily misunderstood.
Ziller said she was impressed with the clarity of Shah’s briefings and the detailed nature of his answers, for example, when explaining the difference between rates and proportions when it comes to patients hospitalized for coronavirus.
— Nirav D. Shah (@nirav_mainecdc) March 19, 2020
To explain other concepts, the CDC director often turns to memorable examples. On Tuesday, after announcing the number of recorded coronavirus cases in Maine had nearly doubled from the day before, he painted a clear picture of how Mainers should practice personal hygiene.
“The best way I’ve seen this described is to wash your hands as if you have just sliced a bag of jalapeno peppers and now need to take out your contact lenses,” Shah said as the TV cameras rolled. “That’s how we are asking everybody to wash your hands.”
Sen. Shenna Bellows, D-Manchester, said she appreciated Shah’s “calm professionalism” and the agency’s transparency given limitations posed by supply shortages at the state and federal levels.
“He doesn’t exaggerate. He doesn’t say things that are not true. He’s not politicizing the situation,” Bellows said. “He’s just trying to get everyone the facts.”
Shah, who has both medical and law degrees from the University of Chicago, came to the Maine CDC after a four-year stint running the equivalent agency in Illinois. He started his work there in 2015 at the end of the Ebola epidemic. Earlier in his career, he worked for the Cambodian Ministry of Health, doing work that included managing disease outbreaks.
He left the Illinois job amid controversy about his handling of an outbreak of Legionnaires’ disease — a bacterial infection that causes pneumonia — that sickened 74 people and killed a dozen at a state veterans home. His office did not notify families or the public about the initial outbreak for six days and later declined to cite the facility for a safety violation. The state’s two U.S. senators called for his resignation in late 2018.
The Maine Department of Health and Human Services defended him after he was hired here in May 2019, with Commissioner Jeanne Lambrew telling Pine Tree Watch last year that Shah had been “forthright” about his experience in Illinois.
He stepped into a Maine CDC that was severely understaffed after the administration of former Republican Gov. Paul LePage, which initiated cuts and refused to fill many vacant positions in the agency. It has increased staffing under Democratic Gov. Janet Mills, though there are still many vacant positions. Shah has made a point to praise his staff during the outbreak.
“When I have asked my team to rise to a challenge, they have done so,” he said earlier this week. “And for that, I commend every single one of them.”
Sarah Bly, an epidemiologist with the Maine CDC, said Shah has “really stepped up and led us so far through this really difficult challenge.”
The CDC director has continued to employ a variety of methods to help people to understand. On Thursday, in a plea to Mainers to practice social distancing, he turned to what he called “one of the luminaries in the public health world,” the British rock band Coldplay.
“We should all be asking ourselves this: Are we part of the cure or are we going to be a part of the disease?” Shah said. “And in this situation, I ask everyone to be part of the cure.”
BDN writer Caitlin Andrews contributed to this report.