The director of public health in the third most populous county in the United States will be Washington's next secretary of health.
Gov. Jay Inslee on Tuesday announced the appointment of Dr. Umair A. Shah to lead the state Department of Health beginning on December 21.
Since 2013, Shah has been executive director of Harris County Public Health in Houston, Texas. He will replace outgoing Secretary John Wiesman who has served in the position since 2013. Previously, Wiesman announced his plan to leave the post at the end of the year to take a teaching job in North Carolina.
"Dr. Shah brings an unrivaled expertise, knowledge and passion for public health," Inslee said in a press release announcing the appointment. "His leadership will help us lead Washington state through the next crucial phase of this pandemic."
Shah's appointment comes as Inslee prepares to begin a third term and as the state, and the nation, are experiencing record new daily cases of Covid-19 and exponential growth in the pandemic. This week, Inslee imposed new restrictions on businesses and indoor gatherings in an effort to contain the rapidly spreading virus.
"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," Shah said in the press release.
Like Inslee, Shah is an evangelist for mask use. He recently told KHOU-TV in Houston that masks have become a "political football." During the interview, Shah held up a mask printed with the hashtag "It's just a mask."
On Tuesday, Houston-area media reported on Shah's planned departure describing him as a "familiar" voice during the pandemic and as someone who had navigated the rollout of Harris County's "Stay Home, Work Safe" order beginning in March.
Texas has been particularly hard hit by the pandemic with El Paso recently emerging as one of the nation's current epicenters.
Since the start of the pandemic, Houston's Harris County -- with 4.7 million residents -- has experienced more than 175,000 cases and more than 2,300 deaths. For comparison, Washington state -- with 7.6 million residents -- had reported 131,532 cases and and 2,548 deaths as of Tuesday morning.
Currently, Harris County is reporting about 1,000 new Covid cases per day, according to the New York Times Covid map, while Washington is logging roughly 2,000 cases each day.
As the director, and previously deputy director, of public health in the Houston area, Shah has overseen that region's response to the 2009 swine flu pandemic, the 2014 Ebola cluster and the 2016 Zika crisis. He also has experience responding to natural disasters like hurricanes and earthquakes.
In addition to his work in public health, Shah has practiced emergency medicine for the past 21 years at the Veterans Health Administration in Houston.
"I am beyond honored to be asked by Governor Inslee to serve as Washington's next secretary of health, building onto the dedicated team and strong leadership championed by John Wiesman at the Department of Health," Shah said in the press release.
In Washington, Shah will oversee an agency that has a two-year budget of approximately $1.3 billion. In addition to disease monitoring, the agency's broad portfolio includes oversight of drinking water quality, food safety, tobacco and vaping prevention, health professional credentialing and immunization promotion.
In a statement, outgoing Secretary Wiesman called Shah "a thoughtful, knowledgeable and energetic leader."
"He brings with him deep public health experience, passion for addressing health inequities, and emergency response experience, all of which will serve the state very well right now during this pandemic and for the years to come."
In addition to his medical degree, Shah has a master's in public health. Born in Pakistan and raised in Ohio, Shah also speaks French, Hindi and Urdu, according to his LinkedIn profile.
In the press release announcing the appointment, Shah said he would be moving to Washington with his wife, three children and puppy Koko.
"While I'm sad to leave Texas after so many years, all of us ... are excited to move to the Pacific Northwest," Shah said.