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A conversation with Maine CDC Director Dr. Nirav Shah

For the last 12 months, Dr. Nirav Shah has been the face of the coronavirus pandemic for Mainers seeking information and answers.

AUGUSTA, Maine — A year ago, most Mainers had never heard of Dr. Nirav Shah. Monday, a year after the COVID-19 pandemic hit the state, there are few who haven’t heard or seen him. 

Dr. Shah has become the face and voice of the pandemic, the medical expert, explaining the details of the virus, and helping lead Maine's fight against it. In a rare personal interview, Dr. Shah told NEWS CENTER Maine that in March of last year, he expected the virus would cause problems but few expected it to last as long as it has. 

 “I think anyone who said this would happen would have been looked at with a skeptical eye then,” the doctor said Monday.

The calm, articulate medical man has spent the last year explaining the evolving science of COVID-19 to people all over Maine. The coronavirus has taken a significant toll—more than 45,000 total cases, and more than 700 people have died with COVID. Dr. Shah said it has touched him personally, with close friends, out of state, who both became seriously lll from the virus last spring. 

“That, early on, drove home for me how real this was. Both of them also happened to be health care providers and said this thing is not a joke, this is really bad.”

There have been some other hard moments, he said, such as when the virus was taking more lives, particularly at one of the first large nursing home outbreaks, at Tall Pines in Waldo County.

“And that was instructive as well as morose and sad, (because) it also made my team and I triple down on our approach to PPE, to testing. ”      

Shah said they became more aggressive in handling all nursing home cases as a result. 

And the doctor, who always appears calm and confident in the CDC briefings, admitted he sometimes second guesses his own decisions, wondering if he did the right thing.

“Of course,” he said, “every single day. Let’s be very candid, no good leader, especially in a crisis, should ever go to bed thinking I got everything right today because that’s not leadership in a crisis.”

Crisis leadership, he went on to explain, requires constantly evaluating decisions made, seeking other opinions, and changing when appropriate.

The big question going forward—which he said everyone wants to be answered—is when will this be over? 

 But that answer remains elusive. 

“There won’t be a day in which I get up at a news conference and say pandemic’s over, everyone have a nice day. That will not happen. It will happen in a piecemeal gradual fashion.”

 Will it happen this year?

“I can’t speculate,” Dr. Shah said.

He also said that as much as Mainers want things to return to normal, there remain real questions of what “normal” will really mean in this, the oldest population state in the country. 

 It's one of many questions Dr. Shah said still need answers, one year into the pandemic.

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