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Dr. Shah stepping down as Harris County's top health official

From mosquito-transmitted diseases to COVID-19, Dr. Umair Shah helped people in the Houston area navigate a number of public health threats.

HOUSTON — Harris County's top health official is stepping down to take a position in Washington state. Effective December 18, Dr. Umair Shah's will be the next Secretary of Health for the state of Washington. 

His voice is a familiar one. From mosquito-transmitted diseases to the flu, Dr. Shah helped people in the Houston area navigate a number of public health threats, even those posed post-Harvey.

But in his seven years as executive director, no challenge tested Harris County Public Health and its executive director like the coronavirus pandemic.

Early on, Dr. Shah signaled COVID-19 was something Texans needed to monitor.

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"It's not surprising to me that you're going to have suspected cases throughout the country," Shah told KHOU 11 on Jan. 23.

Barely a month later, his issued a warning about people who feel sick attending the 2020 Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo, foreshadowing its first-ever cancellation.

In March alone, Dr. Shah lobbied the state for better access to COVID-19 testing, sounded the alarm and worked with Judge Lina Hidalgo to roll out the county’s stay-home, work-safe order. 

The COVID-19 case counts for Harris County kept growing, though, to several hundred a day by late June.

"I cannot stress enough the severity of this situation," Shah said on June 26.

When school districts floated bringing students back on campus in the fall, Dr. Shah released a “roadmap to reopening," offering the county’s guidance.

"It is a terrible place to be if we reopen schools and just a couple of days later, they have to close," warned Shah.

That’s something we saw happen in several districts, including Houston ISD, which shut down more than a dozen campuses the day after students started in-person classes.