Washington state will have a new leader of its health department by the end of the year as Gov. Jay Inslee announced a replacement for the outgoing health secretary, who says his successor will be able to “hit the ground running” amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
During a press conference Nov. 17, Inslee introduced Umair Shah, who will take over as Washington secretary of health from current secretary John Wiesman Dec. 21. Shah currently serves as executive director of Harris County Public Health in Texas, an agency that covers much of the greater Houston area.
Inslee said that Shah led Harris County Public Health through a number of crises outside of COVID-19, including the H1N1 Swine Flu, Ebola and Zika virus outbreaks, adding that Shah has risen to national prominence for advice on local health leadership. Prior to heading up the Harris County agency, Shah had worked as an emergency department physician and chief medical officer for the Galveston County Health District, Inslee said
Shah said it was “an absolute honor and thrill and privilege” to be taking on the role of Washington health secretary. Harris County has a population estimated at more than 4.7 million. Shah said geographically the area is larger than Rhode Island. He added that the county has a spread of urban, suburban and rural areas.
Shah said he is impressed by Washington’s response to COVID-19, adding that continued cooperation across the state in addressing the pandemic will be important in maintaining the state’s relative success.
“This should not be a political football,” Shah said.
He later noted that while in a situation where a patient may agree to begin a medication for something like high blood pressure without pushback, “but something as simple as wearing a mask has become politicized.”
“At the end of the day we have to let science and evidence guide us,” Shah said.
He stressed the need for elected officials, community leaders and public health officials to all be on the same page when addressing the pandemic, adding that he advocates for the need to invest in public health, not just during a pandemic.
“It’s just incumbent on all of us to just champion the importance of health, and not just any one aspect of all the work that we do,” Shah said.
Born in Pakistan and raised in Ohio, Shah is appreciative of equity issues, something brought to light due to disparity in outcomes during the COVID-19 pandemic, Inslee said. Looking beyond COVID-19, Shah said he is eager to address other health issues in Washington state, such as health equity, the environment and healthcare access.
Shah added he is honored to follow in the footsteps of Wiesman, who he called “a friend, a colleague and an incredible health leader,” both as health secretary and at the local level. Prior to leading the Washington State Department of Health, Wiesman had served as Clark County Public Health Director before moving onto the statewide role in 2013.
Wiesman’s departure comes at a time when the state’s COVID-19 activity has been increasing to levels not seen during the entire pandemic in some places, though the health secretary’s decision to leave was made before the public health crisis began. Inslee noted that Wiesman accepted a position at the Gillings School of Global Public Health at the University of North Carolina, his alma mater, in February.
“I would like to keep (Wiesman) for the next 100 years,” Inslee said, thanking Wiesman for his work that the governor said was integral in keeping Washington’s disease activity among the lowest in the U.S.
“There is never a good time to transition,” Shah said about the timing. “We just have to make sure we are leaving teams behind that are strong, they are capable, they are ready.”
Inslee said Shah’s hiring is “a catch for the state of Washington,” saying the incoming health secretary already has influence at the national level for advice on local health issues.
Wiesman said he has known Shah for a decade and described the incoming secretary as “knowledgeable, compassionate, energetic, (and) thoughtful.” He added that Shah fit the profile he had described to Inslee’s selection team for someone who would be able to take on the role.
“I couldn’t be more thrilled than to have Dr. Shah lead the department,” Wiesman said.
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