Dr. Nirav Shah, former head of the Maine Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, announced Thursday that he was resigning his post to pursue a bigger, better job as the “principal” deputy to the director of the federal CDC.
Shah, who was Maine’s leading public health authority throughout the pandemic, became the smiling face of Gov. Janet Mills’ authoritarian economic lockdowns of Maine’s small businesses and schools. Throughout the pandemic, Shah cultivated a celebrity following that culminated with the former Chicago resident being profiled by Downeast Magazine and speculating about a future run for U.S. Senate.
Shah came to Maine from Illinois, fresh off a scandal that saw several veterans die from an ill-contained outbreak of Legionnaire’s disease. Shah’s handling of that outbreak was lambasted in an independent report commissioned by the state, and he faced bipartisan calls for his resignation.
Despite the deadly scandal in Illinois, Shah faced next to no criticism from the Maine media, who were eager partners in his quest for celebrity. As if to remind the people of Maine that the media was never interested in holding Shah accountable, several reporters from Maine’s news outlets spent last night fawning over Shah and congratulating him for making it to the big leagues. To his credit, Michael Shepherd in the Bangor paper was the only reporter to bring up Illinois in an otherwise gushing sendoff.
Shah, for his part, spent much of last night replying to everyone who said something nice about him on social media. Here’s a sample:
Maine Public Digital Reporter:
Newscenter Maine Chief Meteorologist:
Press Herald Reporter:
Newscenter Maine Anchor:
Press Herald Reporter:
Not a reporter, but…
Shah’s free ride from the media began almost on day one. Consider this pre-lockdown piece from the Portland newspaper on his hiring. The paper does not mention once Shah’s handling of the Legionnaire’s outbreak in Illinois, which was the most high-profile event of his career prior to coming to Maine. Perhaps I’m a cynic, but I prefer journalists who instinctively question government power, rather than worship it.
The sendoff this week is indicative of how the Maine media treated government authority throughout the lockdowns. Rather than being skeptical of the extraordinarily authoritarian policies Shah was urging and Mills was enqcting, Maine’s media simply acquiesced to State dictates. More than that, they celebrated Shah as the smart man from government here to take care of the people.
On Shah’s watch and at his direction, the government of Maine leveled unprecedented attacks on individual liberty, and Mills seized an unprecedented extent of emergency power. Freedom of movement was restricted, economic freedom was curtailed, and freedom of the press was attacked. For all the praise about Shah being a gifted public health speaker, there’s next to no mention of his attempt to exclude former Maine Wire reporter Katherine Revello from asking questions during his briefings. If Shah is a gifted speaker and the smartest man in the room, then why did he need to exclude a diligent and respectful journalist like Revello from his briefings?
I’ve heard multiple reports of Maine CDC agents sent into restaurants undercover to catch business owners in some small violation, which often resulted in their permanent closure. I’ve also heard reports of law enforcement questioning grandparents for visiting their grandchildren during the lockdowns. The damage done to schools is apparent to anyone paying attention. And whereas only four Mainers under the age of 20 died from Covid-19, suicide ideation and substance use disorders have increased in Maine’s young people.
The Maine CDC will never study the question, but it would be interesting to know whether more people died directly from Covid-19 or from authoritarian government policies.
In times of panic, when government officials are sprinting headlong toward authoritarianism, it is the role of the free press to stop and ask questions, regardless of whether the government is marching under the banner of safety. But that didn’t happen with Shah. Instead, a bunch of 30-year-olds in the governors’ office watched CNN all day and made up state policy as they went along — with next to no critical inquiry from journalists. Then they shoved Shah in front of cameras to sell the idea, and the media helped turn him into a celebrity.
What kind of broken news media culture celebrates the mastermind of authoritarian policies? Cutesy glib jokes about “rick rolls” and drinking Diet Coke can’t change Shah’s legacy, first in Illinois, then in Maine, of deadly incompetence and authoritarianism. I’m excited to see how his vaunted expertise will be put to use in the federal government.