PROVIDENCE – After leading the state’s public health response throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, Dr. Nicole Alexander-Scott is resigning as director of the Rhode Island Department of Health, stepping down from the position in two weeks, the governor’s office said on Thursday.
Gov. Daniel J. McKee’s office said Alexander-Scott will serve as a consultant to the R.I. Department of Health for three months after stepping down as director of the department “to ensure continuity” in the department’s COVID-19 response.
In a resignation letter dated Thursday addressed to McKee, Alexander-Scott didn’t specify the reason she’s leaving the leadership position but mentioned her “next chapter” of her work in public health.
While Alexander-Scott confirmed that she will remain available as a consultant as she uses the rest of her paid compensatory time in the following month, she made clear to McKee that the “day-to-day leadership of RIDOH will be handled by whomever you select as the interim director” after the next two weeks are over.
“At the conclusion of this one-month period, I will leave state service,” Alexander-Scott wrote. “I recognize that the pandemic continues to pose challenges to all aspects of life in Rhode Island, including the operation of RIDOH. The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the important work of public health officials across the country, and I am proud to have led RIDOH in the service of the people of this state during such a critical period.”
“I will miss the dear friends and colleagues I have made in state government during my entire tenure … but will be carrying the lessons I have learned from all of them to the next chapter of my work in public health,” Alexander-Scott wrote.
In an additional statement provided by McKee’s office, Alexander-Scott called her time leading the state’s public health agency “the most rewarding experience” of her career.
“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,” said Alexander-Scott, who had participated in a news briefing about the state’s pandemic response held by the governor on Wednesday morning. “It has been an honor to serve you.”
Alexander-Scott was appointed as the director in March 2015 by then-Gov. Gina Raimondo, who had been elected to the state’s highest office just a few months before.
Alexander-Scott said she was proud of the work the Rhode Island health care community has done to help low-income people and to advance racial equity during her time as director at RIDOH.
“I would also like to thank all the health care providers and community partners who have supported the work we have been doing at RIDOH since 2015 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,” she said in the announcement.
McKee said he accepted her resignation and thanked Alexander-Scott, calling her “a steady, calm presence for Rhode Island” as the state battled the pandemic.
“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.
Alexander-Scott concluded her statement in the governor’s announcement by thanking her colleagues in the R.I. Department of Health for always supporting her.
“And finally, I would like to express enormous gratitude to the members of my RIDOH family,” Alexander-Scott said. “They embraced me, taught me, challenged me, picked me up when I was down, and had my back every step of the way.”
At the time of her appointment as health director in 2015, Alexander-Scott was board certified in pediatrics, internal medicine, pediatric infectious diseases and adult infectious diseases. She was an assistant professor of pediatrics and medicine at the Warren Alpert Medical School of Brown University, serving in the divisions of pediatric and adult infectious diseases at affiliated hospitals in Rhode Island.
She also served as a consultant medical director for the Office of HIV/AIDS, viral hepatitis, STDs and TB at the state Department of Health in the Division of Infectious Diseases and Epidemiology.
Alexander-Scott received her bachelor of science degree from Cornell University and her doctor of medicine degree from SUNY Upstate Medical University at Syracuse. She also holds a master of public health degree from Brown University.
Several state officials and community leaders praised Alexander-Scott for her leadership during the pandemic while expressing disappointment over her resignation, including House Speaker K. Joseph Shekarchi, who said he asked her to reconsider her resignation.
“I talked to her this morning and expressed my gratitude for her great work throughout the pandemic,” Shekarchi said in a statement. “I encouraged her to stay.”
Shekarchi called Alexander-Scott a “trusted resource” who was “steadfast in her advocacy to eliminate health disparities” in the state, in addition to helping the state greatly to navigate the pandemic.
General Treasurer Seth Magaziner, a Democratic gubernatorial candidate, released a statement seemingly questioning whether McKee always followed Alexander-Scott’s public health guidance.
“Her voice and presence will be profoundly missed, and it is important now, more than ever, for Gov. McKee and all Rhode Islanders, to listen to experts like her as we navigate the pandemic and work together to build a healthier state,” Magaziner said.
Secretary of State Nellie Gorbea, who is also a Democratic candidate for governor, said Alexander Scott’s departure “creates a real vacuum in leadership during the biggest public health crisis we have ever lived” and “also signals a lack of confidence in our governor.”
Wendy Schiller, professor and chair of political science at Brown University, said Alexander-Scott’s “shoes will be hard to fill.” Schiller said her resignation “creates potential instability in Rhode Island health care leadership when we can least afford it.”
Dr. Ashish K. Jha, dean of the Brown University School of Public Health, called Alexander-Scott’s resignation a “huge loss” for Rhode Island.
“Whatever she does next – she’ll be awesome,” Jha wrote in a tweet. “Dr. Nicole Alexander-Scott is one of the smartest, most capable public health leaders I have met.”
(ADDS final four paragraphs with reaction; MINOR edits throughout.)
Marc Larocque is a PBN staff writer. Contact him at Larocque@PBN.com. You may also follow him on Twitter @LaRockPBN.
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