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Washington Governor Jay Inslee has appointed Pakistan-born Dr Umair A Shah as health minister to lead the state’s COVID-19 strategy amid the worsening pandemic situation.

“Dr Shah brings an unrivaled expertise, knowledge and passion for public health,” said Governor Jay Inslee in a statement. “His leadership will help us lead Washington state through the next crucial phase of this pandemic. He is uniquely suited to continue our nation-leading response.”

Currently serving as an executive director and local health authority for Harris County Public Health (HCPH) in Texas, Dr Shah is an immigrant from Pakistan who grew up in Ohio. “Equity is incorporated and considered in every decision as he leads organisations to ensure health and safety of everyone,” added the governor.

Dr Shah said he was honoured to serve as the secretary of health. “Without question, the number one priority for me is to work with the team to continue the fight against COVID-19 and help Washingtonians through these challenging times,” he added.

The physician reflected that the pandemic highlighted importance of public health and healthcare working together. “I am confident my experience in both will serve the state of Washington well now during these difficult times, and into the future.

“While I’m sad to leave Texas after so many years, all of us – my wife, our three kids and our puppy (Koko) – are excited to move to the Pacific Northwest.”

Who is Dr Shah?

He graduated from Vanderbilt University and pursued a medical degree at the University of Toledo Health Science Centre. He has a masters in public health with an emphasis in management and policy sciences from The University of Texas Health Science Center.

For the last seven years, Dr Shah has managed HCPH, leading 700 public health staff in the nation’s third largest country of 4.7 million residents.

Before working for the county, he was chief medical officer of Galveston County Health District and has served as an emergency department physician at Houston’s DeBakey VA Hospital for over 20 years.

“Dr Shah comes into the position with extensive experience responding to public health crises. He has helped lead Harris County through novel H1N1, Ebola, Zika and now COVID-19 and has responded to a variety of hurricanes and other emergencies,” said the statement.

The physician worked at the World Health Organization (WHO) during his training and was later deployed in Kashmir and Haiti as part of the response team to the devastating earthquakes.

In 2017, Shah served as the president of NACCHO, representing nearly 3,000 local public health departments across the nation, and its Texas affiliate. In 2019, he received the Roemer Prize for Creative Local Public Health Work from the American Public Health Association.

Dr Shah will replace John Wiesman who was appointed by the governor in April 2013. 

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