Dr. Nirav Shah, the director of the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention who became the face of the state’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic, is leaving for a high-ranking post in federal disease control, officials said Thursday.
Shah, who has been with the state since 2019, has been appointed principal deputy director at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and will take over that role in March, Democratic Gov. Janet Mills said. Shah will be second in the CDC’s hierarchy under Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky.
Shah, a bespectacled epidemiologist who came to Maine from Illinois, became well known in northern New England during the early days of pandemic because of his folksy, often humorous news conferences.
He dispensed vital public health information during an uncertain time and also found time to quote Rick Astley song lyrics and encourage people to eat more soup. He rose to folk hero status for some and was immortalized with a candy bar called a Shah Bar.
Shah said Thursday during a video message on YouTube that deciding to leave the state was not easy.
“We defied predictions, protected vulnerable residents and helped our neighbors with empathy and equity,” he said. “Whether it was the volume of PPE delivered, the number of vaccines given or the cases of Diet Coke consumed, Maine led the nation.”
Maine has fared better than many states during the pandemic. It has had about 2,800 deaths from COVID-19, hundreds fewer than several states with slightly smaller populations, such as Rhode Island and Montana.
Mill said Shah’s steady hand, especially during the early days of COVID-19, when reliable information was scarce, has been a key piece of the state’s success in confronting the pandemic.
“Day after day, week after week, Dr. Shah spoke calmly and directly to the people of Maine, many of whom were scared and uncertain,” Mills said. “He delivered to us the unvarnished truth, as best we knew it, and answered our questions with compassion, empathy, humor, and a clarity that gave us much-needed hope in our darkest of days.”
Maine will conduct a national search for its next state CDC director. Deputy Director Nancy Beardsley will serve as acting chief in the interim, officials said.