Gov. Janet Mills presents Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention Director Nirav Shah with a 12-pack of Diet Coke at a press conference in the State House on Wednesday, June 30, 2021. Shah's love for the soft drink was well-documented during numerous press briefings during the pandemic. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

AUGUSTA, Maine — Maine’s top public health official will become the No. 2 federal one after the COVID-19 pandemic turned him almost overnight from a little-known bureaucrat into one of the state’s most famous people.

Through daily media briefings and around-the-clock work behind the scenes, Nirav Shah, the director of the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention, became the ubiquitous face of a COVID-19 response that led to the sixth-lowest death rate among states and the fourth-highest share of fully vaccinated people, according to a New York Times tracker.

Here are some of the most memorable moments from his time in Maine.

He takes the job at a rebuilding agency despite controversy.

Shah’s stock is rising now. Despite a sparkling resume as both a trained doctor and lawyer who worked to combat disease outbreaks in southeast Asia, that path was not certain when his hiring was announced in May 2019.

Months earlier, he had left his job running the CDC counterpart agency in Illinois under a Republican governor and was harshly criticized for his handling of a Legionnaires’ disease outbreak that killed a dozen people at a state veterans home. The state’s two U.S. senators — both Democrats — called for his resignation in late 2018.

He was tapped by the administration of Gov. Janet Mills to lead a rebuilding effort at the Maine CDC. Since 2011, it had lost 110 workers after positions were eliminated and former Gov. Paul LePage declined to fill new positions. Around the time the first COVID-19 cases hit Maine in March 2020, it had 56 more employees than it did when the Democratic governor took over.

The virus closes in, thrusting Shah into the spotlight.

The briefings that made Shah famous started in earnest on March 11, 2020. The next day, Mills joined Shah after the state reported its first known case of COVID-19 in a Navy reservist who had traveled to Italy and recommended all nonessential gatherings be canceled.

At the time of deep uncertainty that followed over the next few weeks, he became known for colorful quotes that referenced song lyrics and was praised by elected officials and public health voices for concise, empathetic and direct communication at a time of uncertainty.

“Everyone should still remain socially connected,” he said on March 19, 2020. “Even as we introduce a little bit of physical space, that does not mean we need to introduce absolute space.”

Maine gives its first vaccines in a hopeful pandemic moment.

After an unprecedented federal ramp-up, Maine saw its first vaccinations on Dec. 16. 2020, when the first health care workers were able to get initial shots. Despite that milestone, Shah was imparting hope but also caution in the weeks and months before that milestone came.

“The end of a pandemic is not like a switch being turned off,” he said in early December. “It’s not like a fairytale ending. We all wish that this vaccine would bring things to a quick and rapid close, but unfortunately, pandemics don’t really end that way.”

Hospitals fill up in Maine’s most serious test.

The pandemic reached its more dire point to date in late 2021. Before then, cases were low enough to never test Maine’s hospital capacity. Things got worse through the fall and hit their most dire point just before Christmas, when hospitalizations peaked and Maine’s largest health care systems maxed out their beds.

“We have a lifeboat and yet people are drowning,” Shah tweeted on Dec. 15, 2021, noting roughly two-thirds of hospitalized Mainers at that time were unvaccinated.

An emergency ends, and so do the briefings.

Gov. Janet Mills presents Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention Director Nirav Shah with a 12-pack of Diet Coke at a press conference in the State House on Wednesday, June 30, 2021. Shah’s love for the soft drink was well-documented during numerous press briefings during the pandemic. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

The situation improved and Mills allowed a state of emergency and the scant remaining restrictions to wind down on June 30, 2021. On that day, Shah used his 190th briefing — they had gone from daily to weekly by this point — to mark the milestone and got emotional while thanking his wife and addressing a waning audience for the last scheduled time.

“I don’t know most of you, but I feel like I do,” Shah said. “The most meaningful piece of this to me is the fact that someone new to Maine, a guy from another state who has only been here for two years, could come to be viewed as someone to tune into.”

On camera, Mills gifted him a case of Diet Coke, which he often sipped during the briefings.

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...