OLYMPIA — Gov. Jay Inslee announced Tuesday that Washington’s next secretary of health will be Dr. Umair Shah, the health director for Texas’s largest county.
The new appointment comes as the state sees an increase in new COVID-19 infections and hospitalizations, and as Washingtonians brace for more cases, deaths and economic damage as the coronavirus surges.
Shah — who replaces Secretary John Wiesman and will oversee the Washington Department of Health (DOH) — will begin his new job Dec. 21.
In a news conference announcing the appointment, Inslee said hospitalizations of infected people are increasing on both sides of the Cascade Mountains. Meanwhile, state health officials Tuesday reported a new daily record of 2,589 confirmed COVID-19 cases, and 23 new deaths.
But Inslee praised Shah, who has since 2013 served as executive director for Harris County Public Health, the county that encompasses Houston. There, he managed a public-health staff of 700 that serves the county’s 4.7 million residents, according to Inslee’s office.
Before his work there on COVID-19, Shah helped lead public-health efforts through outbreaks of the novel H1N1 influenza, Ebola and Zika diseases, and has worked on response efforts during hurricanes.
In the news conference, Shah said he’s “been impressed by the incredible assertiveness and the responsiveness” in Washington’s efforts to curb the virus.
“Not just today, but for months and months on end,” said Shah. “That’s actually … one of the reasons I did accept this position, is because of that leadership.”
He added, “There’s no playbook for this.”
Earlier in his career, Shah was an emergency-department physician, said Inslee, and then served as chief medical officer of Galveston County Health District. He called Shah “a catch for the state of Washington.”
In the position, Shah will earn $235,684 annually, according to Inslee’s office.
He will replace Wiesman, who this spring announced he would leave at the end of Inslee’s second term to take a position at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, his alma mater.
Wiesman and other state health officials have played a prime role in the pandemic, among other things issuing public-health orders, tracking data on the virus and working with local and federal health teams.
Republican state lawmakers have remained largely shut out of the state’s COVID-19 response. Rep. Joe Schmick, R-Colfax, said he expected to be consulted and be a part of the interview process for the new secretary of health. But that didn’t happen, said Schmick, the ranking Republican on the House Health Care & Wellness Committee.
“I don’t think that is good governance,” Schmick said recently. “I don’t believe that our constituents expected this. They want their electeds to be involved in decision making.”
Inslee and local public-health officials Tuesday praised Wiesman’s leadership amid a pandemic that saw the first reported case and deaths in Washington, as well as the first outbreak.
Wiesman’s knowledge of public health on the local level was key, said Dr. Chris Spitters, health officer for the Snohomish Health District.
“He brought a wealth of local health experience to his statewide leadership role which served us well,” Spitters wrote in an email. “He will be missed but not forgotten.”
Public Health – Seattle & King County health officer Dr. Jeff Duchin called Wiesman a good leader during the pandemic and a great partner to local health districts during his tenure as secretary of health.
Two areas where the state fell short in its pandemic response under Wiesman’s leadership, Schmick said, is with data reporting and ensuring that agriculture workers were working in safe conditions.
DOH has at times struggled with reporting its COVID-19 data and at times has gone days without updates and has changed how and what is being reported. DOH leadership has mostly attributed the problems to antiquated systems that couldn’t handle the volume of data the department has been hit with since spring.
Looking forward, an immediate challenge Shah will have to confront is the scant funding received by state and local health departments to distribute the coming SARS-CoV-2 vaccine, Duchin said, especially when compared to the federal government’s efforts to rapidly develop a vaccine.
“There has not been any similar amount of investments in the state and local public health systems that are necessary to optimally distribute and track and implement a widespread emergency vaccination program in both state public health and hospital emergency preparedness,” Duchin said. “Funding has been decreasing in both state public health and hospital emergency preparedness, for over a decade and so that’s going to be a challenge.”
The new secretary will still have to be able to push the state forward on other health-related issues like funding for public health and health care inequality, Duchin said.
“In addition to COVID, the key challenges that we face are addressing the health impacts of systemic racism and health inequities due to social determinates of health,” Duchin said.
Shah has a bachelor’s degree from Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee, a medical degree from the University of Toledo College of Medicine and Life Sciences in Ohio and a master’s in public health from The University of Texas Health Science Center. As DOH secretary, he will earn $235,684 per year, according to Inslee’s office.
DOH oversees a host of different programs in Washington, ranging from credentialing health workers and inspecting health-care facilities, to emergency preparedness, such as the COVID-19 outbreak.
Amid the mounting numbers of new cases and hospitalizations, Inslee on Sunday announced new restrictions on social gatherings, restaurants and businesses as the state has continued to break daily records for new confirmed cases.