Dr. Puthiery Va, director of the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention, is emphasizing prevention programs and services. “I know what it feels like when you don’t have access to those things,” said Va, who came to the United States as a refugee from the Cambodian genocide. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

The COVID-19 public health emergency had ended by the time Dr. Puthiery Va took over last August as director of the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention.

Hospitals are no longer overwhelmed by sick patients and daily televised briefings ended long ago, meaning she may never become a household name like her predecessor. But, Va said, there’s still much work to be done to improve public health in Maine by making sure people have access to prevention programs and services.

“I’m always thinking how do we make this easier for families, bring these services to people?” Va said. “How do we get people their needed screenings and vaccines, or even antibiotics?”

In a wide-ranging recent interview, Va said her family’s experience as Cambodian refugees in the 1970s shaped her perspectives about public health. Va was born at a refugee camp in Thailand before immigrating to the United States as a child.

“I know what it feels like when you don’t have access to those things,” she said.

Va, 43, succeeded Dr. Nirav Shah, who is now principal deputy director with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Shah became a household name in Maine after the pandemic began nearly four years ago, appearing on television regularly to give updates about the virus and vaccination campaigns. Shah even had candy bars named after him.


Shah started in 2019, less than a year before the pandemic hit in March 2020. The national public health emergency ended in May 2023, shortly after Shah had left to work for the U.S. CDC.

Though it’s unlikely Va will be appearing on TV and online – barring another global pandemic – she is now the face of Maine’s public health efforts, promoting vaccination and other ways Mainers can avoid or minimize disease.

Va was 2 years old when she and her family immigrated to the United States, living in Louisiana until she was 4 or 5 and then moving to Rochester, New York, which had a small but well-connected group of Cambodian refugee families. She entered kindergarten in Rochester without knowing English.

Va said she saw the trauma that families lived through – including her own – when the Khmer Rouge regime killed 1.5 million to 2 million Cambodian people in the mid- to late 1970s. Va’s older brother died before her family left Cambodia.

About 50,000 immigrants reside in Maine, or about 4% of the state’s 1.3 million population. But immigration to Maine, especially from African countries, has increased in recent years. The increasing number of new Mainers combined with the longstanding challenge of delivering public health services to rural Maine means there’s much work to be done to improve access, Va said.



One way to deliver services to as many people as possible is to hire more public health nurses, the boots-on-the-ground nurses that set up vaccination clinics, work with school nurses, respond to outbreaks and work with new mothers and lead programs to help older Mainers. Va said public health nurses are critical to the work that the Maine CDC does to improve the health of Maine people.

Va credited Lynnda Parker, the Maine CDC’s associate director of public health nursing, for cutting the percentage of vacant public health nurse positions from 50%  to 24% during the past year. There are 68 public health nursing positions and 57 are now filled.

Parker said the Maine CDC used a number of different recruitment strategies to get more nurses in the door at a time when there is a general shortage of nurses.

The agency has improved recruiting success by highlighting a stipend that effectively increases pay by 15%, Parker said. The stipend was implemented as an in incentive to fill vacancies and retain staff, but it wasn’t effectively communicated or promoted as a recruiting tool.

After adding the stipend, the starting salary for a public health nurse ranges from $57,480 to $72,932.

Partnerships with universities, job shadow programs, a streamlined application and interview process, and other recruitment efforts also have made a difference. And it helps to have a boss like Va who supports the program, Parker said.


“She gets us. She’s worked with public health nurses before, and she knows what we are and what we do,” Parker said. “She’s so very approachable and collaborative, and she’s a great listener.”

Before coming to work at the Maine CDC, Va headed up the Division of Public Health with the Indian Health Service’s Navajo Area Chinle Service Unit in Chinle, Arizona. She also previously worked in New York City and for the U.S. CDC. Va earned her doctor of osteopathy degree in 2012 from the University of New England.

Va’s salary to lead the Maine CDC is $263,349. She lives in Brunswick with her husband, Scott Kosel, and their two young children.


Va said another of her goals for the Maine CDC is to get the agency more involved in topics that people may not realize are related to public health.

For instance, climate change is harming air quality, such as when Canadian wild fires polluted the air here last summer, and contributing to flooding and other natural disasters that threaten public health. And climate change has expanded the range of deer tick populations, coinciding with increases in Lyme disease in Maine, which set a record in 2023 with 2,904 cases.

Opioid addiction and poor teen mental health are public health challenges, too, she said.

When there’s a weather emergency, for instance, the Maine CDC should be involved in the response, even if it’s something as simple as letting people know where the warming centers are during power outages, she said.

“Public health emergencies aren’t just pandemics,” Va said.

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