LEWISTON — Joan Macri, the longtime mock trial and debate coach at Lewiston High School, had a feeling that Maine Center for Disease Control Director Dr. Nirav Shah had a background in public speaking and debate, so she asked him during a virtual Great Falls Forum discussion Thursday.

Katie Boss of Healthy Androscoggin, prepares to interview Dr. Nirav Shah in her Auburn home for a virtual installment of the Great Falls Forum. The topic “New Year’s Resolutions for Maine’s Health: COVID-19, Vaccines, Mental Health and Looking Ahead.” was aired on the Lewiston Public Library’s Facebook page. Andree Kehn/Sun Journal

Macri, who sensed Shah’s now well-known ability to answer complex questions efficiently and clearly, was right.

“I have spent much of my academic career, starting as a sixth-grader, in speech and debate,” he said, adding that it provided him with skills that he now uses every day.

Shah’s skills during the COVID-19 pandemic have resulted in his face being printed on T-shirts and mugs, but have also resulted in the state being recognized regularly for its response to the pandemic.

During the virtual forum Thursday, Auburn City Councilor and public health professional Katie Boss spoke with Shah about COVID-19, the rollout of vaccines and the pandemic’s impact on mental health.

Shah touched on how public health officials are grappling with some public reluctance to the vaccine, the slow and limited supply of doses, and the vaccines’ cold storage requirements.

Asked about what may happen in the coming weeks and months, Shah said he’s already been told by federal officials that Maine’s allocation of about 18,000 doses per week will remain largely the same for the next several weeks. When he asked those officials when the state might expect an increase in doses, he was told they don’t know.

“Right now in Maine, the demand for the vaccine far exceeds the supply that we have,” he said. “We’re trying to plan without having any sense of what the future pipeline will look like.”

It could be into the spring and potentially into summer until the vaccine is available in widespread quantities, he added.

Shah also said officials are hopeful for vaccines on the horizon that don’t require ultra-cold storage. Both the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines now available require storage and differing temperatures. Within the last few days, Maine received a shipment of vaccines that was not kept within the proper temperature parameters.

Now that vaccinations have begun, Boss asked Shah about the common questions over what precautions people who have been vaccinated still need to take.

Dr. Nirav Shah of the Maine Center for Disease Control, lower panel, is interviewed Thursday by Katie Boss of Healthy Androscoggin for a virtual installment of the Great Falls Forum. The interview was broadcast on the Lewiston Public Library’s Facebook page. Andree Kehn/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

He said even after receiving both vaccinations, it can take some time to become fully active, and the state would still like to see uniform masking and other social distancing measures until vaccinations become more widespread. So far, he said, health experts do not believe people who are fully vaccinated can transmit the disease, but scientists are awaiting further studies to confirm the belief.

“But these are tremendous scientific breakthroughs, and that does mean that if you are a grandparent and are fully vaccinated, you should absolutely feel free to hug your grandkids,” he said.

The discussion also touched on the pandemic’s impact on mental health, and how that relates to calls for communities to fully reopen. Shah acknowledged that for many, it’s been “extremely difficult,” and for those who had already suffered from mental health or substance use issues, the pandemic has likely exacerbated them.

He said Maine CDC decisions are not made “in a vacuum,” and attempt to strike a balance. But he said the focus has been on getting through COVID-19, and keeping people safe, without experiencing the large influx of cases that other states have seen.

“The balance is not easy, there’s no question about it,” he said, adding that other health issues have also not simply gone away.

Many people have delayed or deferred primary or preventative health care appointments, he said.

The forum gave listeners a chance to weigh in with questions, including on how the state can address vaccine skeptics. Referring to his background in debate, Shah said the approach should be the opposite of a high school debate.

“All too often nowadays, we treat disagreements between ourselves and another person as a high school debate,” he said. “We meet with someone on the street or in our families who doesn’t see the world we do, and our immediate response is to say, ‘Well that’s just wrong, because this, this and this,’ and ‘How can you possibly not believe me.'”

“My view is that in the history of recorded thought, treating conversation like a high school debate has never changed a single mind,” he said. “Indeed all it has ever done is reinforce people’s opinions in the first place. The only way we’ll move toward broader widespread acceptance of vaccines is not by trying to out-debate the person who doesn’t believe it, but by asking them, what are their concerns, what are the sources of information upon which they are relying, what would it take for them to get vaccinated. That’s an actual conversation rather than a debate.”

But within the discussion on the raging pandemic, Shah also found room to get a little more personal than during his normal daily briefings, sharing with Boss everything from his love for libraries and debate to that time he “rickrolled” the media during a briefing.

For those unaware, “Rickrolling” is a prank and an internet meme involving an unexpected appearance or use of the 1987 Rick Astley song, “Never Gonna Give You Up.”

Asked about it Thursday, Shah said it was an example of how he has attempted to “find joy and levity even in the darkest moments” of the pandemic. He admitted he’s received some flack for his attempts at humor, but said, “If we lose what makes us smile, if we lose that optimism, if everything is bad without even a glimmer of hope, it’s difficult to get folks to buy into why the future matters, why wearing a mask matters.”

Referring to the event’s host, the Lewiston Public Library, Shah said libraries have a “special place of importance” for him, and that he spent most days in a library growing up.

Asked about what gives him hope for the future, Shah said he believes in “progress not perfection.”

He said despite the challenges in getting enough vaccines, Maine’s program to administer them quickly has been “robust.” He’s also been heartened to see during the pandemic that across the state, “science means something.”

“Every single day, we’re making or showing signs of progress,” he said.

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