OLYMPIA – The director of the health district in Houston was named Tuesday as the new leader for the Washington Department of Health.
Dr. Umair Shah, a physician with a masters in public health, was named by Gov. Jay Inslee to replace Dr. John Wiesman, who is resigning to accept a teaching position at the University of North Carolina.
Inslee praised Shah’s expertise, knowledge and “passion for public health, adding his leadership will help lead the state through the next phase of the COVID-19 pandemic, which is now in its third wave with record infection numbers in some parts of Washington.
“An immigrant, originally from Pakistan and raised in Ohio, equity is incorporated and considered in every decision as he leads organizations to ensure the health and safety of everyone,” Inslee said in a statement announcing the appointment.
Shah has led the nationally accredited Harris County Public Health for the last seven years, managing 700 public health staff serving the 4.7 million residents in the nation’s third largest county.
Inslee praised Wiesman, who had announced he would be leaving the department for a teaching position before the pandemic hit, and stayed to help guide the state’s response.
The governor said he would’ve kept Wiesman for another 100 years if he could. Wiesman pledged a smooth transition for his replacement.
During a virtual news conference Tuesday morning, Shah said his experience with a large, diverse county will help him transition to being the health officer of Washington, where some residents don’t always agree with state guidelines and restrictions designed to slow the pandemic. Harris County has a mixture of urban, suburban and rural residents with different views on approaching COVID-19 and the act of wearing a mask has been politicized for some, he said.
All of the decisions have trade-offs, he added: “I recognize there is a diversity of thought and opinion, but ultimately we have to let science guide us.”
Shah is sometimes a guest on local and national television for advice and discussions about the pandemic. Before the press conference announcing his appointment, he was on CNN discussing news of COVID-19 vaccines.
Before working for Harris County, he was chief medical officer of the Galveston County Health District and has served as an emergency department physician at Houston’s DeBakey VA Hospital for more than 20 years.
Shah has helped lead Harris County through novel H1N1, Ebola, Zika and now COVID-19 and has responded to a variety of hurricanes and other emergencies. He has spent time at the World Health Organization during his training and deployed in response to devastating earthquakes in Kashmir and Haiti.
He likened the health care system to a rubber band, warning that if it stretches too far, it eventually breaks.
“In Texas, one of the challenges we’ve had is about masks,” Shah said.
The state had problems until the governor came to the conclusion that people do need to wear masks, he said. Inslee was assertive and started early in urging people to wear masks.
“That’s what is needed for COVID-19, to be proactive, because if you wait, it’s too late,” he said.
Inslee announced a new round of restrictions Sunday designed to reduce the spread of the virus, which has seen what he called a near-vertical increase in case numbers in recent weeks.
They are less stringent that the state’s “Stay Home, Stay Healthy” restrictions in March that were being rolled back slowly before a new wave of infections hit. The new restrictions, in place until at least Dec. 14, involve the “riskiest categories, when people are across the table, breathing on each other with no masks on, in any context,” he said.
They will hit some businesses like bars and restaurants hard, he said, but disputed the restaurant industry’s contention that closing indoor dining will lead to more people gathering with friends and relatives in homes, with fewer precautions. Rather it will send a message about the risk, he said.
“I also believe that it is important as an alarm bell for the community to realize the risk factor,” Inslee said. “We are hopeful that people will recognize that and act accordingly in their own home.”
Closing restaurants in the spring helped slow the infection rate of the virus, he said: “Don’t tell me that people are going to go somewhere else and just cause more infection because that’s not what happened in March.”
The state is also telling Washington residents to limit Thanksgiving celebrations to those in their household, although as Inslee noted Sunday it won’t be sending state troopers to the door to check on holiday gatherings.
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