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Dr. Nirav Shah leaving Maine to become second-in-command at US CDC

Dr. Nirav Shah, director of the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention, speaks at a news conference Monday, March 16, 2020, in Augusta, Maine.
Robert F. Bukaty
Dr. Nirav Shah, director of the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention, speaks at a news conference Monday, March 16, 2020, in Augusta, Maine.

The director of the state Center for Disease Center for Disease Control, Dr. Nirav Shah, is leaving his post. Shah has been appointed Principal Deputy Director at the U.S. CDC, and will be second in leadership to U.S. CDC Director Rochelle Walensky.

When Nirav Shah became director of Maine CDC in June of 2019, he wasn't a household name. But within months, he would be. The pandemic catapulted Shah into a critical role guiding Mainers through regular briefings.

He became known for this calm, empathetic leadership as he oversaw restrictions on gatherings, shortages of PPE, mask mandates, and the eventual rollout of testing and vaccines. He also became known for his tendency to quote song lyrics to deliver a message, as he did describing the role of contact tracers in September of 2020.

"The bottom line here is that Maine CDC contact tracers are never going to give you up. They're never going to let you down. They're never going to run around and desert you," said Shah.

Mainers' confidence in Shah was reflected in electronic road signs that said "In Shah we trust." His popularity spawned Dr. Shah chocolate bars, t-shirts, and a Facebook fan page with more than 38-thousand followers. Whenever Shah was a guest on Maine Calling, people would inevitably offer their praise before asking a question, including a caller named Jake.

"Before I even get to it, I just wanted to thank you Dr. Shah on behalf of myself, one citizen. Who just appreciates the job you've been doing," said Jake. "Your consistency, your clarity. I hope you get a plaque or a raise when all the smoke clears because you've been doing a tremendous job and I really appreciate it."

Shah's popularity is in stark contrast to public health officials in other states who faced harassments and threats during the pandemic. He even won accolades outside of Maine. Ashish Jha, who now serves as President Biden's Covid-19 response coordinator, last year called Shah one of the nation's best public health experts.

"Maine's loss is the nation's gain," says Governor Janet Mills. She credits Shah for Maine's success confronting the Covid pandemic and says she has no doubt he saved many lives.

"He's a once in a lifetime gift to our state," she says. "To the family that is this community that we call Maine. He helped us keep it together during one of the toughest times in recent history. And his leadership and compassion will never be forgotten. And he'll remain a friend to me and to my family and to the state of Maine I hope as long as he lives."

In a video posted to Twitter on Thursday, Shah praised Mainers for their response to Covid-19.

Though he'll still maintain his residence in Maine, he said his decision to leave his post at the state CDC was a tough one...which he expressed, true to form, through song lyrics

"So I feel like I'm giving you up, letting you down, running around and deserting you. Making you cry and saying goodbye."

Shah will begin his new position at the US CDC in March. Maine CDC Deputy director Nancy Beardsley will serve as Acting Director while the Mills Administration conducts a national search to replace him.