The latest round of COVID-19 closures of businesses and in-person dining arrived as grim, but necessary, news. In a year riven by COVID-19 sacrifices, the traditional big family Thanksgiving feast must become yet another omission.

The pandemic must be slowed. Already, the scourge of COVID-19 has cost more than 250,000 American lives and massive economic disruption. Until an effective vaccine reaches wide usage, life will continue to require much sacrifice.

In our state, some fresh help is on the way in the form of a promising new health leader. Gov. Jay Inslee’s choice of Dr. Umair Shah to be the new Secretary of Health fills a critical need. He succeeds departing Secretary John Wiesman.

Shah is the widely respected health director for Harris County, Texas, which includes metropolitan Houston as well as vast expanses of farmland. Shah has honed his talent for public-health messaging across diverse cultures during hurricanes and floods. That skill is badly needed in Washington where — as across America — even basic COVID-19 prevention mutated into a partisan debate. 

Shah has been a credible cautionary voice on the pandemic from its start. Authorities confirmed coronavirus had infected a Snohomish County man Jan 21; two days later, Shah warned Houstonians to prepare for “suspected cases throughout the country.” As infections subsequently soared, Shah correctly urged public caution and cooperation across health care systems while Gov. Greg Abbott, a Republican, pressed to reopen businesses. 

University of Houston medical historian Helen Valier, an expert on pandemic responses, found Shah adept at advocating prevention across ideological lines. 


“He can get a crowd going and understands that public health is local health,” Valier said. “He’s done a lot for Houston. … We’re not spiraling out of control the way we were. That’s down to good leadership and the front line clinicians.” 

Shah is expected to arrive in mid-December, when Washington will still have urgent pandemic needs.

The four-week restrictions Inslee announced this month are scheduled to expire Dec. 14. A coronavirus exposure warning app developed by the state Department of Health and the University of Washington is scheduled to become available statewide in early December. And families and friends across the state will doubtless be tempted to gather to celebrate year-end holidays.

Without widespread buy-in, any approach to slowing the pandemic will fail. With no vaccine and infection rates overwhelming contact-tracers according to the state’s Nov. 18 report, the sensible answer is to persuade people to help more.