Nirav Shah, director of the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention, speaks to staff in the Emergency Department of Houlton Regional Hospital Wednesday afternoon. In the background are Shawn Anderson, CEO of the hospital, and Dr. Jon Older, a physician at the hospital. Credit: Joseph Cyr / Houlton Pioneer Times

HOULTON, Maine — COVID-19 as an infectious disease may have lessened in severity, but all signs seem to indicate that it is not going away anytime soon. And neither is Nirav Shah.

As the director of the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention, Shah has spent the past three years helping people navigate through COVID-19 and other infectious diseases. It is a job he loves, despite the strains it can place on not only himself but also his staff.

Shah has no plans to leave the post anytime soon — despite being quoted in a recent Down East magazine article that hinted at a run at politics — he said Wednesday while touring Aroostook County to thank various health care facilities for their work during the pandemic.

Shah was talking in the magazine’s story about the racist comments people directed toward him on Twitter when he suggested that he might just run for office in retaliation. Shah has been with Maine CDC since 2019, not long before the pandemic struck.

“Let me be very, very clear about that [interview],” Shah said. “That was an off-hand comment that I made as part of a long interview on a Saturday evening. I am focused on one thing, and one thing only with my team. That is implementing where Gov. [Janet] Mills wants to go with public health.”

Whether that direction includes building up the scope of the Maine CDC, tackling new infectious diseases or continuing to address the substance abuse crisis in Maine, Shah said he remains committed to those goals.

“That is my entire focus — nothing else,” he said.

Nirav Shah joins a group of people in front of a sign that reads "Houlton Regional Hospital."
The staff at Houlton Regional Hospital were visited by Nirav Shah, director of the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention, Wednesday afternoon as part of a tour of medical facilities in Aroostook County. Credit: Joseph Cyr / Houlton Pioneer Times

Shah visited with staff at Houlton Regional Hospital Wednesday afternoon as part of a two-day tour of Aroostook County. His visit included stops at Northern Light Health in Presque Isle, Northern Maine Medical Center in Fort Kent and Cary Medical Center in Caribou, as well as a pair of local pharmacies.

“We as a team wanted to get out and thank people and talk to folks about what other non-COVID things we could be focusing on,” Shah said.

The tour was also an opportunity to get a first-hand look at some of the facilities, equipment and personnel frequently touched upon during his many addresses with Mainers during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Nirav Shah and a nurse look at a chair.
Nirav Shah (left),  director of the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention, meets with Jana Burpee of Houlton Regional Hospital’s laboratory department during a visit to the hospital Wednesday. Shah also visited hospitals in Presque Isle, Caribou and Fort Kent. Credit: Joseph Cyr / Houlton Pioneer Times

For many people, thoughts of COVID-19 restrictions and regulations are something in the past they no longer need, such as face coverings and social distancing. But Shah cautioned them not to become too complacent, or erroneously think the disease is done.

“The worst may be over, we hope, but the baseline disease is not going away,” Shah said. “COVID as an extreme emergency phenomenon, necessitating emergency declarations and cessation of surgery, and things like that, we hope is behind us. But COVID is an infectious disease that is not going away.”

Nursing homes, particularly those in Aroostook County,  were hit especially hard by COVID-19, although he stopped short of saying it was worse there than in other parts of the state or country. Shah said he was impressed by the way so many of those organizations handled the outbreaks, and wants to help their staffs be ready to handle COVID in the future.

Shah said the best defense against the coronavirus is to get vaccinated, receive an initial booster and a second booster as soon as it is available. He said it’s too early to say whether COVID vaccinations will become an annual event, similar to influenza shots.

“I am not ruling it out [as a recommendation], but we are focused right now on the newest form of the vaccine coming in September,” he said.

Nirav Shah poses for a photo with a woman.
Nirav Shah, director of the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention, gets a photo with Heather Quint in the OBGYN unit of Houlton Regional Hospital  during a tour of the facility Wednesday. Credit: Joseph Cyr / Houlton Pioneer Times

The discovery of monkeypox in Maine is another reminder for Shah that his job is never truly done.

“It is different in so many ways,” he said of monkeypox. “It spreads differently and affects an entirely different population. We have a vaccine and treatments already, and we have a ton of testing options available for us. We have three known cases now, and we are going to have more.”