Dr. Dora Anne Mills, left, Dr. Nirav Shah and Kara Palamountain share the stage at Meetinghouse Arts during an Aug. 17 talk hosted by FREEport SPEECH. John Terhune / The Times Record

Maine Center for Disease Control Director Dr. Nirav Shah warned a Freeport audience Wednesday evening that while the worst of the pandemic is likely over, a COVID-free world remains far out of reach.

“I think there are very good reasons to believe that COVID as an emergency is something that’s behind us,” Shah said during the panel discussion at Meetinghouse Arts. “COVID as an infectious disease? That’s going to be with us.”

During the 90-minute event, Shah and his wife Kara Palamountain, a global health expert and professor at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management, discussed government successes and failures in navigating the pandemic as well a variety of other public health topics. Dr. Dora Anne Mills, chief health improvement officer for MaineHealth, moderated the talk, which was hosted by local nonprofit FREEport SPEECH.

Shah addressed several audience questions about the current and future state of the pandemic. He warned there’s no way of knowing whether more virulent strains of COVID-19 will emerge in coming months and predicted annual or semi-annual booster shots will be available as early as this October in order to combat new variants.

He also reflected on the mistakes of the past two years and what they might teach officials about future disease outbreaks.

In hindsight, Shah said, he would have pushed harder to keep schools open as much as possible. He said more clarity from the scientific community could help prevent future health guidance from becoming as politicized as masking and COVID-19 vaccinations.


“Who could have guessed that something as simple as a face covering would become as politically talismanic as it has?” Shah said. “We have a better job to do in public health to ensure that the scientific rationale for the recommendations we make is well laid out. I think we did that with masking, but perhaps not soon enough.”

He warned that the current pandemic’s decline will give way to new threats.

“COVID-19, let alone monkeypox, is not going to be the last dance with infectious diseases coming from other parts of the globe,” Shah said. “It almost rises to the level of an existential question; I would put it up there alongside questions like climate change.”

Palamountain, who has managed over 50 field research teams in Africa, South America and Asia, agreed investing in technology like genomic sequencing tools abroad is a key step to safeguarding public health at home.

“A disease that is harbored in Chicago or originated in Canada or South Africa or wherever it might be is only a plane ride away,” Palamountain said. “Really building the system globally to be able to detect those things and respond to them is in all of our best interest.”

Wednesday’s talk was the fourth hosted by FREEport SPEECH, according to group cofounder Tom Saliba. The organization, which donates all proceeds from ticket sales to organizations like Meetinghouse Arts, aims to invite civil discourse on topics like history, politics and the environment.

“Our motto is ‘Listen, Think, Talk,’” Saliba said. “Talk to each other in a civilized manner and respect other people’s point of view but have discussions about important things.”

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