Dr. Nirav Shah, director of the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention, leaves after a press conference about COVID-19 on March 27 at Maine Emergency Management Agency headquarters in Augusta. Shah never appears flustered or impatient as he faces the media each day, and nimbly relays the latest data.  Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

One day last month, as he was delivering his daily briefing, Dr. Nirav Shah paused to drink from a bottle of Diet Coke, which produced a brief coughing spell.

He quickly assured the reporters gathered, and those listening at home, that he had not fallen ill; it was just the soda.

That may have been one of the only missteps so far by Shah, who has become the face of Maine’s coronavirus response and has earned widespread praise for a polished communication style that’s infused with anecdotes, relatable analogies and, above all, empathy.

“I think he’s a natural communicator,” said Felicia Knight, who owns a public relations firm and is a former television news reporter. “One thing that stands out: He always drives home the human significance. I’m not sure that’s something that can be taught.”

Shah was hired a year ago to lead Maine’s Center for Disease Control and Prevention – not long after he left the same job in Illinois, where he weathered criticism, including calls for his resignation, over how his agency handled a public health crisis there.

If that experience shook his confidence, it hasn’t shown. Shah never appears flustered or impatient and nimbly relays the latest data and answers questions, even if he doesn’t have answers at the ready. He’s both a doctor and a lawyer, but his words are never laden with legal or medical jargon.

That’s not to say that the agency he leads has performed flawlessly during the pandemic. It has struggled, for example, to provide timely data from the state’s hospitals on such basic information as the daily coronavirus patient count. And a miscommunication with the federal government led the state CDC to make an inaccurate public announcement last week about the supply of new, rapid-results tests from a Maine manufacturer.

But Shah himself has not been held responsible for such stumbles.

Dr. Nirav Shah speaks at a news conference March 18 at the Department of Health and Human Services in Augusta. A former CDC director said, “he’s knocked it out of the park” in leading Maine’s response to the coronavirus pandemic. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal Buy this Photo

Two former Maine CDC directors, who were appointed by a Republican governor, couldn’t find anything to criticize.

Dr. Sheila Pinette, who led the agency from 2011-14, said Shah has “been doing a great job.” Ken Albert, who took over for Pinette and served until 2016, said, “I think he’s knocked it out of the park.”

Others are appreciative, too. The town of Topsham put up a movable electronic sign this week on busy Route 196 that reads “In Shah we trust.”

There is even a Facebook group called “Fans of Dr. Nirav Shah,” that has gained followers exponentially since it was created on March 24. Tobey Connor, 38, of Sullivan said she launched the group late one night both as a distraction and to comfort herself from growing anxiety. It had more than 13,000 followers as of Thursday.

“He’s like your favorite professor from college,” Connor said.

Shah, through his staff, declined a reporter’s request for an interview. The staff said he didn’t want to take any focus away from the work that’s being done.

Gov. Janet Mills said in a statement that she, like many Maine people, is “grateful for his counsel, his humanity in this difficult time, and his unwavering commitment to conveying critical and timely information to the people of our state.”

Shah’s reluctance to seek recognition or become the story mirrors his attitude from the podium each day.

“There is no ego with him,” said state Sen. Geoff Gratwick, a Democrat from Bangor who co-chairs the Health and Human Services Committee. “He’s the adult in the room when we need an adult.”

‘A TRUE PROFESSIONAL’

Shah is the son of Indian immigrants who spent much of his life in the Midwest.

Just 42, he already had built a substantial resume before he was hired last May.

He has an undergraduate degree in biology and psychology from the University of Louisville and also studied economics at Oxford University in England.

He paused his education in 2001 to accept a fellowship in Cambodia, working as an economist on public health issues, including disease outbreaks. By the time he left, he was chief economist within Cambodia’s Ministry of Health. He earned both a law degree and medical degree at the University of Chicago, in 2007 and 2008, respectively.

Dr. Nirav D. Shah talks to a staff member after a press conference in Augusta. Shah started giving daily briefings on the coronavirus outbreak during the week of March 9, before any cases were confirmed in Maine, and his communication style stood out early on.  Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

After medical school, Shah joined one of the nation’s top law firms, Chicago-based Sidley Austin LLP, in its global life sciences practice. In a 2016 interview with the University of Chicago law school magazine, Shah said the experience prepared him for a career in public health, including, “how to communicate with others, how to handle disagreement diplomatically, when to speak out and when to hold back.”

Paul Kalb, one of his mentors, said even though Shah excelled in law, his “heart was always in public health.”

“Empathy, certainly, is a part of who he is,” said Kalb, who is still a partner at Sidley Austin. “He’s clearly rising to the moment, but it does not surprise me.”

Shah was appointed in 2015 by former Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner, a Republican, to lead the state’s Department of Public Health.

His time in Illinois was tested early by a Legionnaire’s disease outbreak at a veterans’ home that sickened hundreds and resulted in 12 deaths. Shah and his department were criticized for not communicating about the problem soon enough and for mishandling the repair of a water system that caused the outbreak. A performance audit by the Illinois Auditor General’s Office last year found that state health department officials “often did not know the seriousness of the problem at the Quincy Veterans’ Home” because of a lack of communication from the (U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs).”

Some Democratic state lawmakers, as well as U.S. Sens. Dick Durbin and Tammy Duckworth, called for Shah to resign, but Rauner kept him in the job until he lost his bid for reelection in 2018.

The Mills administration was aware of Shah’s history in Illinois when he was hired last year and maintained he was the best person for the job.

“There is a lot to be said for people who have gone through crisis and have learned from it,” said Knight, the public relations professional.

‘BOTH ART AND SCIENCE’

Pinette, who was Maine CDC director under former Gov. Paul LePage, said although the job is political at times, politics should have no place in a crisis. She led Maine’s public health response during the Ebola outbreak in 2014 and said it was important to have one person consistently delivering the message. As for Shah, Pinette said his calm demeanor and transparency have fostered trust among Mainers at a time when they need to trust government.

Albert, who succeeded Pinette as Maine CDC director, said people don’t understand the complexities of the job. He remembers that part of his orientation at the federal level included training in crisis communication.

“There is both art and science behind it,” Albert said. “People need to know how much you care before they care how much you know … and I think he’s been successful in developing credibility with Maine citizens because he’s done that.”

Shah started giving daily briefings on the coronavirus outbreak the week of March 9, before any cases were confirmed in Maine. Mills’ spokeswoman, Lindsay Crete, said the governor felt it “was important for Maine people to receive information related to their health from the state’s chief public health expert.

Shah’s communication style stood out early on. He’s methodical but not boring in his delivery of information and draws on a seemingly endless stash of anecdotes and metaphors.

“When you go to medical school you get another 20,000 words added to your vocabulary, but then no one can understand you,” said Gratwick, who is a rheumatologist. “He doesn’t have that problem.”

So far in his daily briefings, Shah has quoted lyrics from the rock band Coldplay, suggested washing hands “as if you have just sliced a bag of jalapeno peppers and now need to take out your contact lenses,” and described the shortage of personal protective equipment as akin to carrying “an umbrella in a hurricane.”

He compared testing for coronavirus with baking to explain why a shortage of a needed chemicals was critical.

“You need to have some of the hardware, like the oven; you also need some of the equipment, like the mixing bowls,” Shah said in one briefing. “And then you need to have the ingredients themselves: the oil, the butter and the chocolate chips. So … when we talk about a testing kit, it’s essentially everything but the oven that we’re talking about.”

He suggested that managing reports on ICU beds and ventilators at Maine’s hospitals is like being an air traffic controller – “Being able to take a look at what planes are in the air and which ones might be coming. Similar to an air traffic controller, it can change minute by minute by minute by minute.”

‘HE NEVER BLUFFS’

One of the things Shah seems willing to do that some leaders don’t is acknowledge when government is not delivering.

As the testing backlog persisted last month, Shah repeatedly called it “unacceptable,” while vowing to make it better.

“He never bluffs an answer. If he doesn’t have it, he explains why,” Knight said. “He doesn’t sugarcoat anything either. He doesn’t make us feel like we’re all going to die tomorrow, but he makes clear what’s at stake.”

Another thing Shah does each day is remind Mainers to keep an eye on their own mental health and reach out if they need help.

“This uncertainty may be the new norm and I fully recognize that uncertainty is unsettling,” he said one day last month. “Those feelings are OK. We are all feeling it.”

He then challenged Mainers to “look around and see what you can do to settle parts of your life.”

On the rare occasion Shah is asked to address a question that’s political, he either defers to Mills or offers diplomatic, if vague, answers.

At a briefing last month, he was asked about people from other states coming to Maine and deftly sidestepped a political landmine.

“Never have I lived in another part of the world that is as welcoming to those who are from another part of the country as I’ve been in Maine, and I hope that it stays that way,” he replied.

Even though he’s not from Maine, Shah knows his audience, too. Last Friday, he referenced famed Maine author Stephen King, referring to him as “our literary friend from Bangor.”

He said although it feels like we’re in one of King’s horror stories, “We’re writing the script and the ending.”

Shah often will credit the work of his staff and deflect any praise.

Gratwick said he’s had the occasion to talk with some of Shah’s employees at the CDC and all speak highly of him.

“On top of the job he’s been doing, he’s also just a very nice human being,” he said.

One day last month, when talking about supplies or personal protective equipment, Shah casually mentioned that on his way home he hand-delivered some to OceanView at Falmouth, a senior living facility where several residents tested positive for the virus.

But Shah lives in Brunswick, so it really wasn’t on the way.


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