One of the people I have come to respect deeply over the last two years is Dr. Nirav Shah, head of Maine’s CDC (Centers for Disease Control.)
Almost weekly, since March 2020, he has held a press briefing on Maine Public Radio, taking questions off the cuff from media journalists in Maine in an attempt to keep the public informed about COVID. Frequently, Maine’s governor, Janet Mills, and its Commissioner of Health and Human Services, Jane Lambrew, have joined Dr. Shah on these broadcasts. Together they have answered questions, explained CDC guidelines and recommendations, and encouraged Maine’s citizens to do everything possible to stay safe during the COVID pandemic.
I have been impressed time and again by Dr. Shah’s communication skills and his command of COVID scientific findings and statistics. In my mind, he is the consummate communicator. He speaks lucidly, intelligently, respectfully, and empathetically. I have only once or twice heard him ruffled by not having information at his fingertips. Throughout the last nearly two years, he has never criticized or showed anger or frustration with those who refuse to follow mandates and guidelines, deny the seriousness of the pandemic, or continue to resist vaccination. He has the proverbial “patience of Job.”
On January 3, he demonstrated his genuine care, concern, and respect for the people of Maine by participating in a Maine Public Radio Broadcast—Maine Calling, hosted by Jennifer Rooks. (Maine CDC director Nirav Shah addresses questions about the pandemic, particularly about vaccine hesitancy) His purpose for this call-in program was to open a dialogue with those not vaccinated against COVID; his stated goal was to build trust. When I began listening to the broadcast, I was nervous that none of those opposed to vaccinations would call in, the ultimate slap in the face to trust-building. However, callers, emailers, and tweeters engaged with Dr. Shah for nearly an hour. Because he entered into an authentic dialogue with each one, asking genuinely curious questions about their views, assumptions, and situations, relatively few callers got on the air. Some were angry, afraid, and belligerent; others were open and curious.
While he acknowledged and lamented that vaccinations had become politicized, he avoided political debate or criticizing others who engage in such discussion. Instead, he stayed with the “facts”—the statistics, the scientific models, and studies. One could hear the sincere emotion in his voice as he spoke about Mainers who had died of COVID. He listened, expressed understanding, acknowledged agreement where he could. Though he didn’t say these words, I could imagine him thinking, “I can’t do anything to change the politics, nor can I force anyone to follow CDC guidance. All I can do is build trust and try to persuade.”
As the pandemic has unfolded, scientific information and best-practice recommendations have changed and developed repeatedly. As a result, early guidance was superseded by the findings of further studies. Dr. Shah acknowledged that the evolving nature of the scientific understanding of COVID has led to confusion and fed into mistrust of public officials and their recommendations. This broadcast, he said, was one attempt to rebuild trust. It was worth the try.
Such a genuine, careful, skilled effort at trust-building could only come from one who respects his fellow Mainers. Dr. Shah demonstrates that he believes each of us wants to do the right thing. Therefore, he is willing to invest the time to understand the convictions of others and is hopeful that offering his best knowledge and sincere concern will make a difference.
I encourage you to listen to the podcast at the link above. Some have heard me say that I wish Nirav Shah would run for President of the United States. I am saying that I want all politicians and public servants to demonstrate the respect that he does for the people they serve.
One thought on “Building Trust with Respect”
You’re right. Dr. Shah is a compassionate and extraordinary communicator. It is a rare skill set. In the four Atlantic Canadian provinces, citizens have been blessed with similarly skilled Chief Medical Officers of Health, all of whom provide frequent and regular Covid communications with the public. The results are obvious and heartening, with lower impacts from the pandemic, no politicization, and very high vaccine uptake. All of this works to reduce the burden of illness and stress on hospitals and healthcare systems.