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How the pandemic made Dr. Shah the most unlikely celebrity in Maine

“It’s not about me; it never has been”

PORTLAND, Maine — One year ago this week, when the first case of Covid-19 was diagnosed in Maine, Dr. Nirav Shah—the director of the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention--was all but unknown in the state. On the job for less than a year, he’d received troubling reports from colleagues in southeast Asia, where he worked two decades ago, about a new coronavirus that was starting to spread quickly. But did he have any idea what he was in for in the coming year?

“The answer is no,” Shah told me. “No one did. And anyone who tells you otherwise, I think, is engaging in a little bit of revisionism.”

Over the past twelve months Shah has, somewhat improbably, emerged as…well, a celebrity. His Facebook fan club has attracted more than 38,000 members. Cars sport bumper stickers that say “Keep calm and listen to Dr. Shah.” Mainers, in short, have embraced him and the thoughtful, reassuring, no-drama demeanor he’s displayed at dozens of televised news conferences since the pandemic began.

“No question about it, it’s gratifying,” Shah says of the recognition. He goes out of his way, though, to minimize his own contributions and steers the conversation back to the burdens inflicted on so many people. The lives lost. The jobs lost. The classroom experiences lost. The stress, the boredom, the isolation. Whatever challenges he’s faced in the past year, he says, pale by comparison.

In talking to Dr. Shah, we wanted to get a sense of what the pandemic has been like for him not professionally, but personally. After all, he didn’t ask to become famous in Maine. Fate brought it on.

“I think it’s important for folks in Maine to know how thankful my family and I are for the support that we’ve received,” he says. “It’s not about me, though. It never has been.”

The way he sees it, whatever trust he’s earned reflects not so much his work as the generosity of the people he serves. “The fact that a guy who has lived in this state for not even two years, who’s from away, who’s got a funny name, and who’s only been around during the midst of crisis could, during the course of a global pandemic, be seen as somebody who speaks honestly and plainly and has accrued a little bit of trust, who throws in the occasional corny dad joke—the fact that such a person could be viewed as someone to watch, someone to listen to, honestly, I think that tells you more about the character of Maine people than it does about me.”

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