PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — Interim R.I. Department of Health Director Dr. James McDonald is stepping down to move closer to family in upstate New York, Target 12 has learned.
McDonald, who joined the department during the Chafee administration, became one of Rhode Island’s most familiar faces during the coronavirus pandemic. His star rose as he regularly spoke at televised pandemic-related news conferences under Govs. Gina Raimondo and Dan McKee, and then took over as the department’s top official after Dr. Nicole Alexander-Scott stepped down earlier this year.
“This has been an extremely difficult decision for my wife and me,” McDonald told Target 12 during an interview on Thursday. “I’m moving back to where I’m from originally, which is upstate New York.”
McDonald, who’s known for using props and lighthearted metaphors to explain public health issues, opened up about his family situation, saying his mother has Alzheimer’s and his 91-year-old father has been struggling to take care of her.
“I can help him and I want to help him,” McDonald said, adding that family is something he probably ought to have focused on more during his career.
McDonald said he has another opportunity lined up in New York, but declined to provide specifics because it hasn’t been finalized. McDonald said he’s stepping down at the end of June and taking unused vacation time into July. His final day will be July 29.
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It wasn’t immediately clear who would replace McDonald as head of the Health Department. The department is a division of the R.I. Executive Office of Health and Human Services, which is also under acting leadership following the resignation of Womazetta Jones as secretary last month. Two other EOHHS agencies — the Department of Children, Youth and Families and the Department of Human Services — also currently lack permanent leaders.
In a statement, McKee lauded McDonald’s service to the state.
“Dr. McDonald has provided steady leadership to our state and great counsel to me as we continued our work to manage COVID-19,” McKee said. “Rhode Islanders have come to know, love and trust Dr. McDonald for his easy-to-understand explanations and simple tips. Thanks to Dr. McDonald and his team, we know we have the tools to keep ourselves and our families safe. I thank Dr. McDonald for stepping up and taking on this interim position. We will be keeping his family in our thoughts.”
McDonald, a pediatrician by trade, became director at a time when McKee’s office and Health Department officials were butting heads over how best to respond to the pandemic. But he downplayed whether the friction ever affected his ability to lead, saying he gets along well with the governor and that he’s never felt like his public health advice has been ignored.
“People have a hard time ignoring me,” he said. “I’m the type of person people generally listen to.”
McDonald becomes the third high-ranking official to leave the department this year, as Alexander-Scott’s exit was followed shortly thereafter by Tom McCarthy, former executive director of COVID-19 response.
Nevertheless, McDonald argued his exit won’t create any type of vacuum in leadership at the Health Department, saying it has always been “much bigger than one person.”
“It’s nice that people think I’m important, but I have a lot of people each day that make me smart,” he said. “I’ve loved being the director of health, but it’s been the easiest job I’ve ever had.”
In addition to serving as interim director, McDonald also runs the state’s Board of Medical Licensure and Discipline — a key behind-the-scenes regulatory job, which McKee will also have to fill.
Looking back, McDonald said his biggest accomplishments in the department were his work on the opioid epidemic, his regulatory role and his ability to help people during the pandemic.
Looking forward, McDonald said his biggest public health concern over the next six to 12 months is not COVID-19, but rather the mood of the nation, saying people have become far too frustrated with one another.
“We have too much to be angry about in our nation and that needs to come to a close,” he said.
He also urged state lawmakers to consider using federal funds to make smart investments that ensure Rhode Island is better positioned for the next pandemic or public health emergency.
McDonald said his plan is to help McKee with the transition and then take some vacation time before starting in his next job. The gig, he said, might require him to keep interacting with Rhode Island health officials for time-to-time — but he declined to elaborate.
Asked about his biggest regret during his tenure in state government, McDonald said, “I wish I would have taken more time off,” adding that the feeling has contributed to his decision to leave.
“I thought I would never leave Rhode Island or the Department of Health, but when I really looked at where I saw my family, and my soul and myself, I just felt like this is what we had to do,” he said.