Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention Director Nirav Shah speaks at a press briefing in Augusta on June 30, 2021. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

A version of this article was originally published in The Daily Brief, our Maine politics newsletter. Sign up here for daily news and insight from politics editor Michael Shepherd.

Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention Director Nirav Shah announced Thursday that he is leaving for the No. 2 job in the U.S. CDC after the COVID-19 pandemic made him a household name here overnight.

He was the face of the state’s response through media briefings and worked around the clock behind the scenes. Shah had a loyal group of fans and won early and bipartisan praise. While enthusiasm waned as the national response to the pandemic dragged on and became more political in itself, he enjoyed a mostly good reputation up until his departure.

On Thursday, U.S. Sen. Susan Collins, a Republican, called his briefings “a source of calm” for Mainers. But he was more than just a public face, and Maine’s pandemic response under Shah has generally been rated high.

It has held one of the lowest death rates and one of the highest vaccination rates. A team of conservative economists gave the state an A grade for its response, praising its health performance but giving it a mid-range score on the economy and education. The administration of Gov. Janet Mills has often noted a Commonwealth Fund analysis giving Maine the second-best COVID response.

But dive into its full ratings and a more complex picture of Maine’s health performance emerges. It rated the state’s overall health care performance during the pandemic 14th in the nation, with twice as many key metrics improving rather than worsening. It was still last in New England, with the analysis citing rising drug- and alcohol-related deaths that came at some of the higher rates in the country, plus income disparities in the health care system.

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The worsening opioid crisis was a topic of debate on the campaign trail between Mills and former Gov. Paul LePage. Despite new steps to address it under the Democratic governor, the state was on pace for a record number of overdose deaths in 2022. Shah’s first task was to rebuild a CDC that LePage, a Republican, pared down through cuts and attrition. The agency brought on 56 more employees by March 2020 than Mills inherited.

Shah leaves a state continuing to address these long-term problems with others on the horizon. Maine hospitals are under financial stress as part of a national trend. Lawmakers are eyeing reforms to fight opioids and change the child welfare system. Mills’ budget proposal dedicates more to behavioral health, struggling nursing homes and waitlists for other services.

These are some of the issues that will dominate attention this year and in those to come after Shah leaves.

Michael Shepherd

Michael Shepherd joined the Bangor Daily News in 2015 after three years as a reporter at the Kennebec Journal. A Hallowell native who now lives in Augusta, he graduated from the University of Maine in...