Nirav Shah will the the second-highest authority within the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
In this Aug. 24, 2022, file photo. Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention Director Nirav D. Shah tours Penobscot Community Health Care’s Adult Wellness Center on Union Street in Bangor. Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik / BDN

Nirav Shah is stepping down as director of the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention to take a top post within its federal counterpart.

Shah has been appointed the principal deputy director at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, placing him second in the agency’s leadership behind Director Rochelle Walensky, the governor’s office announced Thursday.

He will assume that role in March, nearly three years into the global COVID-19 pandemic.

“While I’m sad to leave the Maine CDC, I’m proud of what we’ve accomplished,” Shah said. “I’m thankful for the opportunity that Governor Mills and Commissioner Lambrew provided me to serve the people of Maine. In my new role, I will be honored to serve not just Maine, but the entire nation and carry forward the good work that we have done here. As I prepare for this next step, I thank the people of Maine for taking care of me, as I’ve always asked them to take care of each other.”

Shah quickly became a household name across Maine during the pandemic, with his daily COVID briefings becoming must-watch TV by Mainers anxious to learn the latest developments about the novel virus and its spread.

His memorable analogies, penchant for quoting the British rock band Coldplay, love for Diet Coke and exhortations for Mainers to care for each other generated a devoted fan base not common for public health officials. Mainers created Facebook pages devoted to Shah and T-shirts and other memorabilia emblazoned with the phrase “In Shah We Trust.”

Shah was named the Maine Caregiver of the Year in 2022, and he even teased a future run for political office last year, though he maintained he was committed to his role at the Maine CDC.

The end of his daily TV briefings in June 2021 marked for some a symbolic step in Maine’s fight against COVID. At the time cases had fallen dramatically and vaccination rates remained higher than in other states. But that hope was short-lived as the delta — and later omicron and its legion of subvariants — variant caused cases to spike and they have remained elevated since.

On Thursday, Gov. Janet Mills called Shah a “trusted” adviser and praised his leadership during the pandemic.

“Day after day, week after week, Dr. Shah spoke calmly and directly to the people of Maine, many of whom were scared and uncertain. He delivered to us the unvarnished truth, as best we knew it, and answered our questions with compassion, empathy, humor, and a clarity that gave us much-needed hope in our darkest of days,” Mills said, adding that Americans broadly can now benefit from his leadership.

Health Commissioner Jeanne Lambrew said Thursday that when Shah first joined the Maine CDC, his biggest challenge seemed to be rebuilding the agency after cuts under Gov. Paul LePage left its ranks of public health nurses thinned.

“Today, we look back with awe and appreciation at his ability to strengthen the Maine CDC while tackling the immense public health threat of COVID-19. His deep knowledge, commitment, and skillful communication with the people of Maine undoubtedly saved lives. We wish him the best as he transitions into his new position,” Lambrew said.

The Maine Department of Health and Human Services will conduct a national search for the next Maine CDC director. Deputy Director Nancy Beardsley will step into that role on an interim basis. She previously served in that role before Shah’s appointment in May 2019.

Shah, who has medical and law degrees from the University of Chicago, came to the Maine CDC after four years of running the Illinois Department of Public Health. 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 aLegionnaires’ disease outbreak — 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.