Rhode Island’s top public health official to step down

Rhode Island’s top public health official, who has guided the state’s response to the coronavirus pandemic, is resigning, Gov. Dan McKee said in a statement Thursday.

Dr. Nicole Alexander-Scott, director of the Rhode Island Department of Health, will stay on for two weeks during the search for new leadership, McKee said. She will then act as a consultant to the department for an additional three months to ensure continuity.

No reason for the resignation was provided either in the governor’s statement or her resignation letter.

Alana O’Hare, a spokesperson for McKee, said Alexander-Scott approached the governor several weeks ago to to discuss “other opportunities,” and the governor at that time asked her to stay. She did not elaborate on the nature of those opportunities.

“Dr. Alexander-Scott has been a steady, calm presence for Rhode Island as we’ve worked together to fight the COVID-19 pandemic,” McKee said. “Her leadership has been crucial to our whole of government response — helping Rhode Island become number one in testing nationwide and getting more people vaccinated per capita than nearly any other state in the country.”

The statement said McKee “regretfully” accepted the resignation.

Alexander-Scott, a New York City native who has served in the role since April 2015, has a background as a specialist in infectious diseases for children and adults, and as an associate professor of pediatrics, medicine and public health.

She was appointed by former Democratic Gov. Gina Raimondo, and stayed on when McKee took over as governor last March when Raimondo assumed the role of U.S. commerce secretary in President Joe Biden’s administration.

“Serving as the Director of the Rhode Island Department of Health has been the most rewarding experience of my career,” Alexander-Scott said in a statement. “I would like to thank all Rhode Islanders for their trust over the past two years as we have navigated this unprecedented public health crisis together.”

More than 300 state and local public health leaders have retired, resigned or been fired since the pandemic began, according to an ongoing count by KHN and The Associated Press.

Democratic Rhode Island House Speaker K. Joseph Shekarchi said Alexander-Scott has “led our state with compassion, confidence and dignity” and in a phone call with her encouraged her to stay.

“In addition to her exceptional work during this crisis, Dr. Alexander-Scott has been steadfast in her advocacy to eliminate health disparities that disproportionally impact some of our communities,” he said in a statement.

Democratic Senate President Dominick Ruggerio said state residents “owe her a deep debt of gratitude.”

House Republican Leader Blake Filippi in a statement said: “We wish Dr. Alexander-Scott well in her future endeavors, and look forward to a fresh perspective to navigate Rhode Island’s comeback.”

Dr. Ashish Jha, dean of Brown University’s School of Public Health and a national expert on the pandemic, called her resignation a “huge loss” for the state.

“Dr. Nicole Alexander-Scott is one of the smartest, most capable public health leaders I have met,” he tweeted, adding “We have benefitted enormously from her years of leadership.”

In addition to guiding the state’s response to the pandemic, Alexander-Scott has during her tenure helped the state address health inequities; led the state response to the opioid epidemic by expanding access to treatment; and helped secure $82 million in federal funding for a new state health laboratory to replace the current outdated lab.