Gov. Jay Inslee today appointed Umair A. Shah, MD, MPH as the new Washington state secretary of health starting December 21. Dr. Shah currently serves as executive director and local health authority for Harris County Public Health in Texas.
“Dr. Shah brings an unrivaled expertise, knowledge and passion for public health,” Inslee said. “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. An immigrant, originally from Pakistan and raised in Ohio, equity is incorporated and considered in every decision as he leads organizations to ensure the health and safety of everyone.”
“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. “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.
“This pandemic has highlighted the importance of public health and health care working together and I am confident my experience in both will serve the state of Washington well now during these difficult times, and into the future,” Shah continued. “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.”
Shah has led the nationally accredited Harris County Public Health (HCPH) for the last seven years, managing 700 public health staff serving the 4.7 million residents in the nation’s third largest county. HCPH was recognized nationally before NACCHO as Local Health Department of the Year in 2016. 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.
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. Shah has a keen interest in global health having spent time at World Health Organization during his training and later deploying in response to devastating earthquakes in Kashmir and Haiti
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.
Shah will replace John Wiesman who was appointed by the governor in April 2013. He has been secretary of the Department of Health for the entirety of Inslee’s two terms in office. He was instrumental in the passing of Tobacco/Vape 21 legislation, advocating for health equity and spearheading the state response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Wiesman announced in February his plan to step down at the end of Inslee’s second term to join the faculty at his alma mater, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill’s Gillings School of Global Public Health.
“Even before this pandemic, John showed himself to be one of the most advanced public health minds in the country and his new job confirms that,” Inslee said. “His dedication to science, data and public health best practices have driven his decisions the entire time he has served in this role. Over the past year, his work has saved the lives of many of his fellow Washingtonians, and we should all be forever grateful for the work John, and his team, are doing for our state.”
“Serving as Secretary of Health has been gratifying both personally and professionally. It’s been a joy to work with smart and dedicated public servants at every level of government and to collaborate with our Tribal nations and partners from organizations across our state and far beyond,” said Wiesman. “Our joint efforts have advanced critical public health priorities from contraceptive access, HIV prevention and treatment, immunizations, to active living and healthy eating and much more that will protect and improve the health of Washingtonians for years to come.
“I am leaving the Washington State Department of Health in good hands. I have known and worked with Umair for over a decade. He is a thoughtful, knowledgeable and energetic leader. He brings with him deep public health expertise, 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.”
Shah has a bachelor’s degree from Vanderbilt University and medical degree from the University of Toledo Health Science Center. He earned his master’s in public health with an emphasis in management and policy sciences from The University of Texas Health Science Center.