Harris County

Umair Shah, Harris County’s Public Health Director, Stepping Down In December

Shah, who held the position since 2013, was responsible for the county’s COVID-19 response. He has accepted a job in Washington state.

Harris County Public Health Executive Director Umair A. Shah in March, updating the public on the first coronavirus-related death in the greater Houston area.

Updated 6:32 p.m. CT Tuesday

Dr. Umair Shah, Harris County’s public health director who has led the county’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic, will step down from his role by the end of the year, the agency announced Tuesday.

Shah accepted the role of Washington state Secretary of Health under Gov. Jay Inslee, where he’ll effective Dec. 18, he said.

Despute leaving the position, Shah said the county would still be in good hands with the agency in place now.

"While I may be cheering this community from afar, our team is strong, it's capable, and it continues to fight the mission of public health for our community," Shah said at a press conference Tuesday.

Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo thanked Shah for his time in Texas, and praised him for the work he’s done as Harris County health authority.

“He's been a champion for investing in public health and preventative measures in communities, before, during, and after these crises,” Hidalgo said. “We're all grateful to Dr. Shah for his work in our county and to his team.”

Shah has served as executive director for Harris County Public Health since 2013, and first joined the agency in 2004 to work in disease control and clinical prevention.

As the county’s public health authority, Shah helped the county navigate through the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey, and helped roll out state-of-the-art mosquito testing laboratory. His time at the agency also included public health responses to Hurricane Ike, Zika, H1N1, and the Ebola virus, according to Harris County Public Health.

Most recently, Shah was responsible for coordinating the COVID-19 public health response in the county, including implementing testing and contact tracing strategies. He has been front and center during public COVID-19 updates, and was outpoken in pushing for face coverings and social distancing among the public. He was also one of the public officials recommending schools in the Greater Houston area open virtually, and has been outspoken against complacency in the face of Texas “reopening” its economy.

Shah is set to leave as the COVID-19 crisis continues to worsen in throughout the region. The Texas Medical Center on Monday reported a seven-day average positivity rate of 5.1% in its hospitals, up more than a percentage point month-to-month, and that the spread of the virus is continuing to increase throughout the region. Hospitalizations continue to trend upward, according to TMC data.

For the most part, Shah stayed on message for the press conference. Calling 2020 “the first half” of a football game, he said Harris County has a long way to go, and that Greater Houston’s COVID-19 numbers were moving in the wrong direction. In particular, he urged the public not to let their guard down during the holidays.

"We are still in this pandemic, and what we do during halftime, what we do during the holidays, is gonna be absolutely critical for the path forward in 2021 which is the second half,” he said.

Additional reporting by Matt Harab.

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