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Dr. Nirav Shah became a household name in Maine for a very unfortunate reason — the COVID-19 pandemic. For more than a year, the bespectacled doctor provided frequent updates to Mainers on the virus and its toll on the state. He told us what he knew, and what he didn’t.
Shah, the director of the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention, provided a sense of calm while sharing information about the new virus that was sickening and killing people around the world in the early months of 2020.
Shah is now leaving Maine to work for the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, where he will be second in leadership to Director Rochelle Walensky.
“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,” Gov. Janet Mills said in a statement last week. “I strongly believe that Maine’s nation-leading success in confronting the pandemic is due in large part to Dr. Shah’s leadership, and there is no doubt in my mind that he saved the lives of many Maine people. While I am saddened that we are losing Dr. Shah at the Maine CDC, I will be forever grateful for his work to protect and improve the health of Maine people.”
Maine’s pandemic response under Shah and Mills was rated as one of the best in the nation. The state has one of the lowest death rates and one of the highest vaccination rates. The Commonwealth Fund analysis gave Maine the second-best COVID response. 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.
While Shah spawned a fan club, he also was a target of anger and disdain. Conservatives have criticized the state’s response to the pandemic as too heavy handed. They reason that the pandemic was not too bad in Maine, so the response from Shah and Mills was too drastic. This neglects the fact that the pandemic’s death toll and infection rate in Maine were among the lowest in the country in large part because of the protective measures that the administration imposed and suggested.
While we don’t aim to downplay the negative impacts of some state rules on businesses, education and mental health, we shouldn’t lose sight of the fear and uncertainty that was prevalent in early 2020 when the coronavirus was first found in the United States and Maine. Much was not known about the deadly virus, but caution was a guiding principle around the world.
During these uncertain and scary times, Shah’s reassuring words and thoughtful assessment of the dangers of the pandemic were needed and welcomed.
“During his tenure as Maine CDC director, Dr. Nirav Shah’s briefings during the pandemic were a source of calm, and he provided helpful advice on how Mainers could protect themselves, their families, and their communities,” Sen. Susan Collins said in a statement. “Maine is grateful for his service, and I wish him all the best on his new leadership role at the U.S. CDC.”
Shah served Maine well during tumultuous times. As he moves on to a new role, Maine’s loss is America’s gain.