Northern Maine Community College nursing faculty and students listen to Maine CDC director Nirav Shah during his virtual visit to the campus on Friday. Credit: Melissa Lizotte / The Star-Herald

PRESQUE ISLE, Maine — Even when the current class of first-year nursing students at Northern Maine Community College graduate and enter the medical field in 2023, Maine will likely still be grappling with the effects of COVID-19.

That was one of many messages Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention Director Nirav Shah shared with students and faculty during a virtual visit on Friday.

“COVID is going to be here not just for the foreseeable future, but probably for the next decade. How long will we be at pandemic level? We can only speculate,” Shah said. “I would think that once COVID infection rates reach that of other common respiratory illnesses, like seasonal influenza, we might not need to wear masks.”

Vaccine and mask mandates, booster shots, potential therapeutic treatments and community education were among the topics that Shah explored in response to questions submitted anonymously by NMCC students and faculty.

While booster shots for the Pfizer vaccine have become available for Maine residents older than 65, those with pre-existing health conditions, teachers and medical workers, Shah emphasized the importance of people receiving their first two shots of any COVID-19 vaccine.

“If we were like Portugal or Iceland, where most of the population is vaccinated, it would be very hard for the virus to mutate and change year to year,” Shah said. “So it’s no surprise that we’ve seen COVID mutate worse in countries with lower vaccination rates.”

Shah also addressed the latest developments surrounding molnupiravir, an experimental pill for COVID-19 patients being developed by the U.S. pharmaceutical company Merck. 

Though there is always potential for new COVID treatments, Shah said, molnupiravir still needs to undergo safety and drug interaction tests. In addition, advisory committees for the Food and Drug Administration and the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have not yet met to discuss clinical data concerning the pill.

Shah emphasized that although drugs could potentially treat the onset of COVID-19 symptoms, they do not overshadow the effectiveness of full vaccination.

“It’s great to have smoke detectors, but that’s not a substitute for fireproofing your house,” Shah said. “Therapeutic drugs do not prevent COVID-19.”

When asked why he devotes most COVID-related conversations to the vaccines, Shah said that urging as many Mainers as possible to get fully vaccinated remains his top priority.

“If I’m being honest, people are sick and tired of COVID and they’re sick of hearing from me. I may occupy 1 percent of somebody’s mind every day,” Shah said. “So if I have to focus on one thing people can do [to stop the pandemic], without a doubt I tell them to get vaccinated.”

Shah’s expertise on COVID-19 proved helpful for the dozens of NMCC nursing students who viewed his presentation from several classrooms on campus. 

First-year student Rudi Carton of Linneus said that Shah’s endorsement of the COVID-19 vaccines encourages her to spread a similar message to community members.

“[As a nurse] I hope that I can help get everybody on board with the vaccines,” Carton said. 

Brittany Harris of Ashland, also a first-year nursing student, noted that hearing Shah’s perspective on COVID-19 further motivates her decision to become a nurse. Despite entering the medical field during one of its most stressful times, she hopes to do her part in comforting and educating patients.

“I want to help people who are at the lowest point of their lives,” Harris said. “Hopefully I can be part of putting an end to COVID.”