OLYMPIA, Wash. — Gov. Jay Inslee on Tuesday announced the appointment of a new state health secretary who will take over the department as Washington is struggling to contain a surging coronavirus that has already triggered a second round of statewide restrictions.
Dr. Umair A. Shah, currently working in Houston, Texas as the executive director and local health authority for Harris County Public Health, will replace Dr. John Wiesman. There are nearly five million people who live in Houston and Harris County, according to population data. He is expected to begin his new role on Dec. 2, the governor's office said.
“Dr. Shah brings an unrivaled expertise, knowledge and passion for public health,” Inslee said in written statement released before his public announcement. “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."
During the announcement of Shah's appointment, Inslee defended the new COVID-19 restrictions, saying they are based on science and not some arbitrary decision.
The governor said the new restrictions are not nearly as harsh as what was implemented in March. He said his administration wanted to clamp down on places where face masks are removed, either by necessity or by people letting their guard down.
“What we've done is reduced the number of interactions in the riskiest categories,” Inslee said. “And the riskiest categories are when people are breathing on each other across the table without masks on in any context.”
He said his executive orders were issued to address places where people are inclined to drop their masks, including restaurants, cafeterias, coffee shops and inside homes.
“And there’s nothing we can do to ameliorate that because people have to take their mask off when they eat,” Inslee said.
The new restrictions were put in place because the number of COVID-19 cases is soaring above the levels the state reported at the start of the pandemic. Hospitals are now reporting a jump in patients needing treatment for coronavirus, pushing the hospitals to capacity.
Inslee said he fears that hospitals will once again need to halt all elective procedures such as heart issues and cancer treatment.
"It’s sort of like you’re standing on the railroad tracks. Why do you get off the tracks when you hear the whistle coming?" Inslee said. "There’s a train coming our way and we’re on the tracks and this is just a clear reality. We’ve got to get out of that danger zone and it’s just too late if we wait.”
The governor said his new restrictions will be in place for four weeks and then his administration will re-evaluate them to see if they have impacted the surge in cases.
Inslee said he hoped to be able to provide additional details about a $50 million relief program for small businesses later this week.
Inslee used the start of his news conference to announce the appointment of Shah, whose last day is expected to be Dec. 18, local news media in Houston reported.
“I can’t overstate how lucky we are to have Dr. Shah, who is a nationally recognized health expert willing to come to Washington state," Inslee said. "It is just a remarkable thing.”
“There is never a good time to transition,” Shaw said from Houston via a video livestream. “The last 24 hours have been very difficult for me. A lot of tears that have been shed. There is never a good time to transition."
Shah will assume the reigns of the department after Wiesman, who had announced in February that he was leaving his role with Washington state, to assume a teaching role at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
Wiesman was appointed by the governor in April 2013 as secretary of the Department of Health. He has served in the role for both terms of Inslee, who was just re-elected to an unprecedented third term.
The governor's office said Wiesman was instrumental in the passing of Tobacco/Vape 21 legislation, engaging the state's Tribal nations, advocating for health equity, and spearheading the state response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“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 in the statement. “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.”
The hiring of Shah will fill one of two top health roles in Washington state's government.
Dr. Kathy Lofy, the state's health officer, announced in October that she was resigning her position.
Lofy had been in her role for nearly seven years but is planning to leave the role some time around the end of this year, although an exact date has not yet been publicly disclosed
According to Inslee's office, 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.
According to local reports, Harris County has also been hit hard by COVID-19.
The county has reported over 175,000 coronavirus cases during the pandemic, and Harris County has logged over 2,300 fatalities from the virus, local news media outlets reported.