Monday’s “Maine Calling” radio show was like the public health version of an encore at a rock band’s last concert.

Maine Center for Disease Control Director Dr. Nirav Shah was the voice and face of pandemic news in Maine for years, starting when the state recorded its first case in March 2020. Tammy Wells Photo

For perhaps his final time as director of the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention, Dr. Nirav Shah answered questions about the COVID-19 pandemic, the flu and other health topics for the Maine Public show.

Often known for sprinkling in pop culture references during his many public appearances in Maine, Shah quoted the Beatles and Bill Withers while speaking with host Jennifer Rooks, who estimated that Shah – who is leaving the Maine CDC to take the second-highest position at the U.S. CDC in March – made 40 appearances on the program over the past three years.

During the height of the pandemic in 2020 and 2021, Shah would often conduct news conferences several times per week, before dialing it back last year after vaccinations and immunity from infections blunted the impact of the coronavirus on society.

Shah, 45, was the voice and face of pandemic news in Maine for years, starting when the state recorded its first case in March 2020. He would answer questions from reporters and residents, in between chugging a Diet Coke or referring to song lyrics, movies or television shows.

Especially when much of society was shut down in 2020 and people were staying at home and avoiding gatherings, thousands of Maine people would tune in for the news conferences, streamed on local news websites, on Maine Public and on local television stations.


“I used to set my day up to listen to you and learn, and you always had something really important to say,” said Carol, one of the listeners who called into the show Friday.

Shah became such a public figure in Maine that he had a chocolate bar named after him, and his face and name were on everything from coffee cups to T-shirts and quilts.

He said Monday that although he is leaving for the U.S. CDC in Atlanta, he and his wife, Kara Palamountain, are keeping their home in Brunswick.

“Maine is still our home and we will be back,” Shah said.

Shah will soon take on the role of principal deputy director of the U.S. Centers for Disease and Prevention under director Rochelle Walensky. He said communications from the U.S. CDC to the public could be improved, especially by giving simpler messages while still being accurate.

“If somebody asks me what time it is, I don’t try to build them a clock. I just tell them what time it is,” Shah said.


Shah said one of the challenges of science communication is that as scientists learn new information, advice on what to do “invariably changes.”

He was also known for answering questions from people who were nervous about or questioned the effectiveness of the COVID-19 vaccines.

“It’s the power of conversation,” Shah said. “There’s nothing magical, nothing secret about it. Treating people like adults and answering them earnestly is the only way that we can make progress.”

Despite his affable personality, Shah did face tough questions and criticisms during his tenure at Maine CDC. For instance, he and the Mills administration were criticized for how long COVID-19 restrictions – such as mask mandates and limits on the size of gatherings – remained in place, and for taking too long to increase the number of in-person school days.

Some also questioned Maine’s strictly age-based method of rolling out the vaccines, while other states prioritized those with vulnerable health conditions regardless of age. But Shah has pointed to the simplicity of the age-based system, and how Maine was one of the fastest states in terms of how quickly it got “shots into arms” in early 2021. Maine is now one of the most-vaccinated states in the nation.

On Monday, Shah debunked a common anti-vaccine talking point – people have pointed out that most of the new deaths from COVID-19 are occurring in the vaccinated population. While that’s true, it’s simply because almost everyone – especially in a state like Maine – is now vaccinated.


“What would those numbers have looked like without the vaccine?” he said. “The vaccine has saved so many lives.”

According to a December 2022 analysis by the Commonwealth Fund, a health advocacy foundation, about 3 million lives were saved in the United States by the COVID-19 vaccines between December 2020 and November 2022.

About 1.1 million people have died from COVID-19 in the U.S., including 2,854 Maine residents, according to state and federal health statistics.

But despite the grim times during the pandemic, Shah said that he “truly loves” his work and is committed to being a public servant.

“I was prepared for when the chips were down, to have the backs of every single person in Maine,” he said. “I wouldn’t change that for anything.”

Caroline Losneck, an independent film and radio producer who lives in Maine, asked a more lighthearted question of Shah on Twitter, which was picked up by Rooks and asked during the show.


“What song, if you had to pick only one, exemplifies your time as Maine’s CDC director, and why?” Losneck asked.

Shah picked two songs, “Lovely Day” by Bill Withers, and “With a Little Help from My Friends” by the Beatles. Shah has quoted song lyrics by Prince, U2 and others, and notably, twice used lyrics from the often-quoted “Never Gonna Give You Up” by Rick Astley.

Losneck, reached by the Press Herald on Monday, said that she appreciated how Shah used culture references in between learning about the virus.

“He seemed like a normal person who happened to have an important responsibility,” she said. “He clearly seems very dedicated to his role in public health and being a public servant.”

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