In his new role as deputy director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Dr. Nirav Shah hopes to improve the Atlanta-based agency’s communications and readiness for future emergencies.

But first, on Tuesday, Maine’s top public health official will pay a visit to Washington, D.C. Shah will be U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree’s guest at President Biden’s State of the Union address.

Dr. Nirav Shah, director of the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention in 2021. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

“I have watched it on TV since I was a teenager. I am so incredibly honored and privileged to be joining Rep. Pingree at the State of the Union,” Shah said during an interview with the Press Herald on Thursday.

Maine’s top public health official will start his new job at the beginning of March as principal deputy director of the CDC – second-in-command to Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky. Shah has been Maine’s CDC director for three and a half years and got to know Walensky while leading Maine’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Walensky, in a written statement to the Press Herald, said that she is “excited to have Nirav join the agency in this role.”

“He has been a trusted voice and public health leader for his state and beyond during the pandemic, and I know he will bring his deep expertise, compassion and commitment to serve the American people,” Walensky said.


The hiring of Shah is part of a reorganization of the U.S. CDC by Walensky, who called for an internal review of the agency after criticism of its handling of the COVID-19 pandemic. Walensky has said the reorganization is intended to help the agency respond faster and communicate its science and research more clearly. Shah is part of a new leadership team that will work directly under Walensky.

Shah, 45, said his “Number 1 job is to be the alter ego of Dr. Walensky. If she needs me to be somewhere and she can’t make it, I will be there.”

One of Shah’s roles will be to improve communications at the federal agency. He said he believes there were times during the pandemic when the U.S. CDC was “slow to take control of the message, and when they did, the message was confusing.”

There will be times when he will be called upon to make media appearances, especially when Walensky is unavailable, Shah said. But he doesn’t expect to be making a lot of appearances, and instead will be working on communication strategy.

“This is going to be a time to put my head down and do the work,” Shah said. “I will be available to do media, but I’ll be a little more involved in the strategy behind the communications.”

Shah said he also will be working to improve the U.S. CDC’s laboratories.


“They are the creme de la creme, but we need to get them all operating from the same playbook,” Shah said. “They need to have a single unifying approach and protocols for safety and quality assurance.”

Shah said the weakness of the U.S. CDC’s current lab system came into focus when initial COVID-19 tests released early in the pandemic did not perform as accurately as desired.

Another task for Shah will be to improve the CDC’s “readiness and response” so it is more nimble during a crisis. He said he will be working – among other jobs – to reduce unnecessary duplication and streamline the bureaucracy.

A little more than two months after Shah joins the U.S. CDC, President Biden will formally declare the national emergency from COVID-19 to be over.

Shah said that doesn’t mean the pandemic is over, but rather the public health emergency is winding down because the system has effective tools to combat the virus – vaccines, treatments and prevention. Compared to last winter, the 2022-23 winter has been less disrupted because a wall of immunity from vaccines, prior infections or both has kept COVID-19 from overwhelming hospitals. In fact, it’s largely been held in check, especially in highly-vaccinated states such as Maine.

“It does not mean COVID-19 is coming to a close,” Shah said. “We still do case investigations and vaccine clinics. But the U.S. is in a much different place than it was three years ago.”


Rep. Pingree, D-1st District, told the Press Herald on Thursday that she invited Shah to the State of the Union because of the new role he was taking on with the federal government and to recognize his work in Maine helping the state through the pandemic.

Wilbur’s of Maine named a chocolate bar in honor of Dr. Nirav Shah, the state’s Center for Disease Control director, who is universally praised for his calm, reassuring demeanor during his daily pandemic briefings. Robert F. Bukaty/Associated Press, file

“It just seemed like a great time to recognize his work, thank him in person, and introduce Dr. Shah to some of my colleagues, since he will be working with us,” Pingree said.

Shah became so well-known in Maine for his at times near-daily news briefings, which were live-streamed online and televised, during the first two years of the COVID-19 pandemic. Fans of Dr. Shah did honor him in numerous ways, from making a “Shah bar” chocolate bar of him bearing his photo, to coffee mugs that said “In Dr. Shah We Trust,” to quilts with his face on them.

“There was so much unknown about the pandemic that it made us feel panicked, uncertain and frightened,” Pingree said. “He had the ability to be calming and to explain extremely complicated medical issues in very straightforward terms. He was a great voice of reason, a real unifying voice during that time.”

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