The state of Maine has the nation’s oldest population, with an average age of 45.1 versus 38.5 for the U.S. overall. It is also among the country’s poorest. Fewer than one third of residents hold a bachelor’s degree or higher. Yet despite these risk factors, Maine has a remarkably low prevalence of COVID-19: at last count, there have been 5,780 cases (about 430 per 100,000 people), 463 hospitalizations and 143 deaths. The state’s COVID-19 test positivity rate—averaging roughly 0.5 percent—is the lowest in the nation. In comparison, equally rural and far flung North Dakota, with roughly 60 percent of the population of Maine and an average age of 35.5, has suffered 28,244 cases (about 3,700 per 100,000 people), 357 deaths and a test positivity rate of roughly 8.1 percent.
The face of Maine’s successful policy is Nirav Shah, director of the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention. Shah’s rock star status is reflected in his impressive Twitter following, a Facebook fan club and even an electronic road sign on the state’s Route 196 that blinks “In Shah We Trust.” The fact that a self-described “brown guy with a funny name from another state who has been here for 400 days could be viewed as a voice for science,” Shah has tweeted, “speaks more about the character of Maine people than anything else could.” Clearly, that “voice for science” has had a powerful influence. Cell-phone-tracking data indicate that Maine residents have sharply curtailed travel since March. And surveys suggest a general adherence to public health advice on mask wearing and social distancing, even in outdoor spaces such as hiking trails.
Trained in law and economics as well as medicine, Shah takes a broad view of public health that relies on equal parts science, persuasion and empathy. His twice-weekly public radio briefings follow three principles: never shy away from the truth, answer questions directly, and acknowledge the statistics and numbers without overlooking the human element. Our national approach, he says, does not adhere to those principles.
Gotta love Maine! https://t.co/v77EKcSf7y
— Gail Carlson (@GailLCarlson) October 17, 2020