Dr. Mark Shah, who teaches a disaster management class to medical students, says he would never have had the audacity to create a scenario in which an earthquake hits during the onset of a global pandemic. “That would have crossed into the unreasonable,” the doctor says. “I couldn’t have dreamed that one up.” 

Shah has deployed with several boots-on-the-ground medical response teams from Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans to the earthquake in Haiti, but he marks the dual incidents in his hometown as “the moment I entered the longest disaster deployment of my life and the only one where I’ve slept in my own bed.”

During the height of the pandemic, the Utah Department of Health reported those living west of I-15 in Salt Lake City were twice as likely to become infected as those living east of the interstate. The disease exposed an ugly truth: poorer folks along the Wasatch Front would pay the greatest price to COVID-19. 

Shah knows he can’t fix every social issue, but in his appointed role to create and advise in Crisis Standards of Care, he made it his mission to ensure no one was sidelined as our hospitals shifted into crisis mode and demand for care outstripped supply. 

Before the pandemic, Shah restructured state contingency plans for triaging care in case of a disaster. He collected input from advocacy groups like the Disability Law Center, throwing out the traditional outcome-driven playbook. 

“Those who have been historically disenfranchised weren’t going to be further disenfranchised because, say, they hadn’t had the same access to health care in the past,” says Shah, “not when they have borne the burden of this virus and not for any other reason.”

Thanks to groundwork laid by Shah and others, no one in Utah who needed a ventilator went without. As hospitals reached capacity, Shah helped organize the effort to offload patients by diverting them to less busy ones, oversaw the creation of alternate care sites, employed technology to monitor at-home patients, reinstated retired nurses and recruited more staff from around the country. 

“The running of these plans was the work of thousands,” he says, loathe to take credit. “Responding to a disaster really clears away all of that cynicism and doubt that we have toward our fellow humans. When communities are challenged, they really step up and come together.”


This story is part of our series on coronavirus heroes. Read all of them here.