When Dr. Nirav Shah signed on as Maine’s top public health official in 2019, he thought his biggest challenge would be rebuilding a system diminished by years of poor management.

Then came March 2020.

Even before the first coronavirus case was diagnosed here, Shah was out in front of Mainers, holding daily briefings that brought information and humanity each day at a time when people desperately needed both.

Dr. Nirav Shah speaks at a news conference in Augusta on April 28, 2020. Shah became the face of the state’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Robert F. Bukaty/Associated Press, File

Shah is now in line to become director of the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, where he has been second in command since leaving Maine this spring. His experience in Maine, where he was the Mills administration’s chief communicator on COVID while helping to fix the state’s public health infrastructure, shows Shah is the right person for the job.

He better be. If selected for the top job, he’ll oversee a CDC that is at a crossroads. Once considered the gold standard for public health expertise, the agency saw its reputation for scientific accuracy dwindle during the pandemic, as it often failed to clearly communicate information and advice to the American people.

When the CDC gave initial recommendations on how to protect oneself from the virus, for example, it failed to prepare people for how quickly that guidance could change. When new information was revealed, the CDC was slow to incorporate the data into its recommendations.


At a time when people needed clear, confident and actionable information, the CDC looked at turns slow, hesitant and out of touch. In that environment, misinformation and outright lies about the virus were allowed to flourish. Any chance that the country would unify to protect each other from COVID was lost.

Shah, a great communicator, is just what the CDC needs as it prepares for the next public health emergency. During the pandemic, his daily briefings became appointment viewing for Mainers, not just so they could learn the latest news on how to protect themselves, but also for a feeling of connection, community and consolation at a time when the whole world felt out of sorts.

Throughout this time, Shah articulated difficult scientific principles in a jargon-free, easy-to-understand manner. At a time when a lot of Americans were at each other’s throats, Shah was dependably patient and kind, even with people who confronted him with hostility and conspiracy theories.

He also never failed to drive home the human toll of the disease. He took time recognize each COVID death in Maine, never letting us forget the numbers represented real people, or that so many of our neighbors were struggling.

“This uncertainty may be the new norm and I fully recognize that uncertainty is unsettling,” Shah said one day in March 2020. “Those feelings are OK. We are all feeling it.”

Shah’s tenure wasn’t free of mistakes. As good as Shah was at talking to people in their living rooms, the agency could be slow to respond to the media’s more difficult and uncomfortable questions.

And Shah brought with him to Maine questions from his tenure in Illinois. Just 37 when he was named to lead that state’s Department of Public Health in 2015, Shah faced criticism and calls for his resignation over the handling of a fatal outbreak of Legionnaires’ disease at a state-run veterans home.

After the crucible of the pandemic, Shah’s experience in Illinois seems far away. Clearly, he learned something and has applied those lessons successfully.

In Maine, Shah showed he’s a great communicator and a true public servant. At this time, that’s just what the CDC needs.

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