End of Nirav Shah's TV briefings marks symbolic step in Maine's COVID-19 fight

  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.

Jun. 30—AUGUSTA, Maine — The scene marking a Wednesday milestone looked a lot like the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic in Maine. Reporters, mostly unmasked, filed into a State House office for a news conference with Gov. Janet Mills and top state health officials.

Sixteen months ago, Mills had announced Maine's first coronavirus case there during one of the first televised briefings on the virus. On Wednesday, she and other officials reflected on the past year as they announced that the news conference — a staple of the state's virus response — would be the last, coinciding with the end of Maine's pandemic-related state of emergency.

State officials said they would hold further briefings in the future as virus news came up. Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention Director Nirav Shah warned last week about the delta variant, a more contagious strain that was recently detected in Maine, saying it could lead to an increase in cases among unvaccinated people.

"Though the emergency ends, COVID continues," Shah said Wednesday. "There will continue to be cases of COVID, there will continue to be outbreaks of COVID, there will continue to be hospitalizations, and sadly, deaths."

But the last scheduled briefing marks a symbolic moment in Maine's pandemic response and recognizes the decreased urgency of public communication about the coronavirus as cases have fallen dramatically and vaccinations have slowed. The news conferences were a daily ritual at the start of the pandemic when the virus captivated the state's attention and Mainers were isolated in their homes, unsure about next steps.

Since March 2020, more than 69,000 Mainers have tested positive for the coronavirus while 858 have died from it, according to state data. But as of Wednesday, the seven-day average of new virus cases sat at 24, down from 112 a month prior and the lowest level since September of last year. Maine has the fifth-highest vaccination rate of any state, according to federal data, with 77 percent of adults having received at least one dose.

Shah, who had been hired as CDC director less than a year prior to the virus' arrival in Maine, became a household name last year, drawing praise from state lawmakers and Mainers eager for information in the early days of the pandemic-induced lockdown.

As the pandemic dragged on, the agency shifted to three briefings per week after a few months, then two, and eventually only once weekly this spring as vaccinations accelerated and cases declined. Online interest in the briefings also dropped over the past 15 months.

Compared with the onset of the virus in March 2020, the number of people following the Bangor Daily News' online streams fell more than 50 percent as of January 2021 and more than 90 percent as of earlier this month. The briefings were also streamed on other organizations' sites and aired on television and on Maine Public radio, though some stations have stopped carrying them in the past few months.

The declining viewership has accompanied the general lifting of pandemic-related restrictions in Maine, with fully vaccinated people no longer required to wear face coverings in public and most businesses now permitted to operate without restrictions. Health officials reiterated Wednesday that, although the briefings would end along with most public-facing virus restrictions, state efforts, including expanded virus testing, would continue.

There are still some devoted listeners. Wendy Lumbert of Skowhegan said she appreciates Shah's "clear and concise manner" of explaining public health concepts and characterized the briefings as a welcome source of information at a time where she did not feel comfortable venturing out to be around others.

"We will miss his weekly updates very much," Lumbert said.

At the 190th briefing on Wednesday, Mills acknowledged Shah, giving him a case of Diet Coke, his drink of choice during briefings over the past year. The Maine CDC director, who momentarily got choked up on Wednesday while thanking his wife, Kara Palamountain, for her support throughout the pandemic, returned the compliments.

"I don't know most of you, but I feel like I do," Shah said. "The most meaningful piece of this to me is the fact that someone new to Maine, a guy from another state who has only been here for two years, could come to be viewed as someone to tune into."