AUGUSTA, Maine — Nirav Shah has had a major impact on Maine in a short time. Now he’s leaving for a bigger job, but said he plans to come back.
"Leaving professionally is very hard but because of the connections and roots we have... we are not necessarily leaving the state, We are keeping the house here and will come back as often as the schedule allows."
Cold winters don’t faze Shah, he said, because he grew up in northern Wisconsin. Hot summers, however, are another matter.
"Any temperature over 70 degrees and I’m immediately uncomfortable."
That could pose a problem because he is about to become deputy director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Georgia. It’s a job that came looking for him, Shah said, after his three years of work in Maine battling the COVID-19 pandemic. That put him in the public health spotlight, both in Maine and nationally.
It also made him one of the most recognizable people in the state.
"To be someone who didn’t grow up in Maine, has only been here three and a half years, has a funny name and brown skin. And yet, three-and-a-half years later, to be seen as someone they wave at as I walk down the street or go into a bar, is really gratifying."
Shah admitted he wasn’t all that prepared, personally, to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic when it first hit.
"On a scale of 1-10, probably zero," he said. "There’s nothing that prepares you for a pandemic at all. The only preparation for a pandemic is a pandemic. I had experience with other epidemics, like the Zika virus, but nothing like COVID-19."
Shah quickly added that Maine CDC, as an agency, was ready and that Maine responded to the virus in 2020 better than most other states.
Still, he admitted there were many moments of doubt over how to best respond.
"Oh, every day. And let me be clear: any leader during a pandemic who doesn’t wake up five times in the night wondering, 'Was the right call? Do I need to change course?' isn’t being thoughtful. My team will tell you the thing I cherish the most about leadership is people who disagree with me."
Shah won praise for his leadership and his ability to communicate the complexities of the virus to Mainers. He also took ample criticism when earlier guidance changed, as it did with the question of wearing masks.
Shah said he’d like a do-over on some of those early statements, to better explain to people that recommendations might change as scientists learned more about the virus.
That kind of change, he said, is the scientific process and not, as some critics would say, a "flip flop."
"You heard me talk at length and say this advice is based on what we know today. And that’s a phrase we use a lot, but I don’t think I did enough to really prepare and forecast for people in Maine that what we know today will change next week, next month, next year."
The CDC Director said there were lows and highs over the long fight against COVID-19. In addition to more than 2,000 deaths, he said the most worrisome time came just one year ago, as the Omicron variant surged and Maine hospitals filled up.
"When it took hold here in a major way, there was a period I thought if hospitals really and truly run out of beds, that’s when we were looking at things like tent hospitals and flying in doctors from other areas."
Those steps ultimately weren’t needed, he said, but it was close.
On the positive side, Shah recalled the days in December 2021, when there was an urgent need for a new vaccine clinic after many had shut down. So they summoned the National Guard, CDC staff, and others, and quickly got one going.
"96 hours later, we opened up the Augusta Armory as a vaccine center. Friday, we decided to do it, and Tuesday, we were open or business."
Shah praised his 500-person CDC staff for their tireless work during the pandemic.
Now, he is preparing to leave Augusta and head to Atlanta. It is, he explained, a call to public service.
"When you get called up, you go, and to me, that’s what public service is about. So as much as we love Maine and see our future in Maine, for right now, duty has called that this is what I’m going to do."
He acknowledged the move is also an exciting career opportunity. That said, the deputy director job is a politically-appointed position, and if a new president takes over after the 2024 election, he could be out of a job.
For that reason, Shah said, he and his wife are keeping their home in Maine, and intend to return after the CDC position ends.
Mainers may notice one change when they hear about him in the new position. From the Governor on down, Maine people have called the CDC director "Dr. Shah."
It’s a title Shah himself said he doesn’t use, because he never actually practiced medicine, instead focusing on public health issues. He also holds a law degree.
"I went to medical school, but don’t refer to myself as 'doctor.' On press releases and such, you will see I am Nirav Shah."
That message may not resonate with most Mainers.
After three years of educating, explaining, and advising them on how to cope with the COVID pandemic—tasks that earned him high praise from many—the man who led the fight may always be looked at as Dr. Shah.