PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — R.I. Health Department Director Dr. Nicole Alexander-Scott, who has been the face of Rhode Island’s coronavirus response since the start of the pandemic, is stepping down, officials said Thursday.
Her departure was announced by Gov. Dan McKee’s office, which said McKee had accepted her resignation “regretfully.” A spokesperson for McKee, Matt Sheaff, said Alexander-Scott first approached the governor “a few weeks ago” to say she was considering leaving and exploring other opportunities. Sheaff said McKee at that point encouraged her to stay, but she later made the decision to depart.
“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.”
State officials did not immediately disclose where Alexander-Scott is going next, though she alluded in her resignation letter to “the next chapter of my work in public health.”
A Brooklyn native and expert on infectious diseases, Alexander-Scott has led the Health Department since 2015, when she was appointed by then-Gov. Gina Raimondo. Her profile rose exponentially starting in March 2020, when she began appearing daily at Raimondo’s side to discuss the state’s response to COVID-19.
Her efforts to fight the pandemic were lauded in many quarters, with fans praising her steady leadership and public communication. But over time she also earned the ire of those who chafed at ongoing pandemic policies, notably the Health Department’s vaccine mandate for medical workers.
Unlike many cabinet directors in Rhode Island, the head of the Health Department works under a contract for a fixed term. The R.I. Senate appointed Alexander-Scott to a new five-year term in 2020, and up until now she had continued in her role under McKee, who succeeded Raimondo last March after her appointment to President Biden’s cabinet.
In recent months there have been reports of tension between McKee and Alexander-Scott over masking policies and how to handle the delta and omicron waves of the pandemic, though both have downplayed any splits. She was with the governor Wednesday for a news conference laying out the latest steps the state is taking to deal with omicron.
“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 in a statement. “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.”
McKee said he is searching for new leadership for the Health Department.
Alexander-Scott will officially resign in two weeks, then stay on the state payroll for another month using comp time earned during the pandemic, according to her resignation letter. “During that time, I will remain available to the department and to you for consultation, but the day-to-day leadership of RIDOH will be handled by whomever you select as interim director,” she wrote.
After using up that month of comp time, Alexander-Scott will serve as a Health Department consultant for three months to assist with the transition.
In a list of accomplishments touted by the state, Alexander-Scott was recognized for helping to stand up Rhode Island’s COVID-19 testing system, getting schools reopened before other states and steering vaccination efforts.
Prior to the pandemic, Alexander-Scott focused heavily on the state’s Health Equity Zone initiative, which is designed to improve health trends in neighborhoods with historically poor outcomes. In her statement, Alexander-Scott thanked health care and community partners for supporting the work “to ensure that everyone has an equal opportunity to be healthy, regardless of their ZIP code, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender identity, level of education, or level of income.”
The state also lauded the director for her work on responding to the opioid epidemic that has fueled soaring drug overdose deaths in recent years. She helped “expand access to treatment for substance-use disorder, destigmatize substance use disorder, get naloxone in the hands of people throughout Rhode Island, expand peer recovery supports throughout the state, and set Rhode Island up to open some of the first Harm Reduction Centers in the nation,” according to the release.
Alexander-Scott also helped secure $82 million for a new state laboratory, which health officials hope will help expand the state’s life-science industry once built. McKee described that pending project as “a legacy that will help improve the health of Rhode Islanders for generations to come.”
The director’s departure comes at the same time the state is seeing an unprecedented spike in coronavirus cases fueled by the highly contagious omicron variant, which Alexander-Scott estimated now accounts for roughly 90% of all new cases locally.
Hospital systems across the state are grappling with employee shortages that are making it difficult to adequately staff operations, as COVID-19 hospitalizations have increased steadily in recent weeks — nearing all-time high levels. President Biden announced Thursday his administration would send military doctors to hospitals in a handful of states, including Rhode Island, to help out with the workforce crisis.
McKee’s next pick for health director will — among other things — be responsible for guiding the state out of the latest surge. The new director’s to-do list will also include a hugely consequential decision that must be made by mid-March: whether to approve or reject the proposed merger of Rhode Island’s two largest hospital systems, Lifespan and Care New England.
Dr. Elizbaeth Lange, president of the Rhode Island Medical Society, expressed concern about the timing of Alexander-Scott’s departure due to the omicron surge and the pending hospital transaction.
“It is essential that the governor act quickly to identify an equally qualified physician assume this role,” Lange said.
Alexander-Scott will leave after nearly seven years on the job, which state officials said makes her one of only five current state health directors across the country to serve so long.
“It’s been an honor to serve you,” she said.
Tributes to Alexander-Scott began to pour in immediately after her resignation was announced.
“Dr. Nicole Alexander-Scott has led Rhode Island’s Department of Health through unimaginably trying times, and I am grateful for her thoughtful, pragmatic leadership,” said House Speaker Joe Shekarchi. “She has been a steadfast and trusted resource for all of us. … I talked to her this morning and expressed my gratitude for her great work throughout the pandemic. I encouraged her to stay.”
Lt. Gov. Sabina Matos called Alexander-Scott “a source of comfort and indispensable knowledge,” adding, “As a fellow woman leader of color, I am immensely proud of her selfless service and steadfast leadership.”
In an interview Thursday on 12 News at 4, Matos was also asked about the reports of tension between McKee and Alexander-Scott.
“The director’s role as the Department of Health director is to push and advocate for the health and safety at all levels,” Matos said. “The role of the governor, for Governor McKee the same way as it was for Governor Raimondo, is to balance out the information the governor gets from the different directors and to make decisions that are gonna help the state of Rhode Island.”
House Minority Leader Blake Filippi offered a dissenting view about the outgoing director, reflecting Republicans’ frustration with some of the mandates and other pandemic-related policies she has championed. “We wish Dr. Alexander-Scott well in her future endeavors, and look forward to a fresh perspective to navigate Rhode Island’s comeback,” Filippi said.
McKee’s Democratic primary opponents seized on Alexander-Scott’s departure to criticize him for his handling of the pandemic, and to suggest he had failed to listen to her enough since he took office.
“After recent reports of failed action on the part of Gov. Dan McKee, her departure signals a lack of confidence in his leadership and handling of COVID-19,” said Secretary of State Nellie Gorbea, warning there would now be “a real vacuum in leadership during the biggest public health crisis in a generation.”
There was no immediate response to Gorbea from McKee’s office and campaign.
Ted Nesi (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a Target 12 investigative reporter and 12 News politics/business editor. He co-hosts Newsmakers and writes Nesi’s Notes on Saturdays. Connect with him on Twitter and Facebook
Kim Kalunian and Brian Yocono contributed to this report.
An earlier version of this story misstated the year Alexander-Scott was appointed to a new term.