R.I. Senate confirms Larkin as R.I. health director

The R.I. Department of Health has a new permanent director after nearly 28 months with temporary leaders. 

Dr. Jerome “Jerry” Larkin will lead the state’s health department for the next five years, the Senate confirmed Tuesday with a 33-2 vote. Sens. Sam Bell, a Providence Democrat, and Anthony DeLuca, a Warwick Republican, voted against the appointment.  

Gov. Daniel J. McKee announced Larkin as his choice for director on May 10. Larkin’s appointment was OK’d by the Senate Committee on Health and Human Services last Thursday, with only one vote in opposition from Sen. Elaine Morgan, a Hopkinton Republican, who did not vote on Tuesday. 

Larkin is medical director of inpatient infectious diseases consultation services at Rhode Island Hospital and teaches clinical medicine as a professor at Brown University’s Internal Medicine-Pediatrics Residency Program. He also chairs the Tiverton School Committee.  

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Sen. Joshua Miller, who chairs the Senate Committee on Health and Human Services, made the motion for confirmation. 

Minority Leader Jessica de la Cruz also rose in support, albeit cautiously. 

“After speaking with Dr. Larkin, I’ve been encouraged by his understanding of the delicate balance between bodily autonomy and deeply held religious convictions,” de la Cruz said. “He has expressed his commitment to reviewing the issue, particularly in the context of mandatory vaccinations in the manner that respects both individual rights and public health.  

“I will vote to affirm Dr. Larkin with the expectation that he does not take a blanket policy approach that ignores thousands of Rhode Islanders.” 

After passing muster with the Senate committee last Thursday, Larkin said he wasn’t sure if would relinquish his role on the school committee.  

“I haven’t made a decision,” he told Rhode Island Current. “Certainly, you know, the Department of Health is a full-time job but so is being a doctor.” 

Larkin’s to-do list just got bigger. With his successful appointment, he’ll lead the agency responsible for the entire state’s health. Rhode Island features a centralized, state-run health agency. Decentralized health departments are more common nationwide, with local authorities instead charged with public health governance. Neighboring Massachusetts, for example, uses a decentralized public health system and counts over 350 municipal health departments inside its borders.  

The department Larkin will lead includes much under its purview, from tracking infectious diseases to laboratory testing for mosquitos and drinking water. Community health centers, vaccination clinics and physician licensing are a few more of the department’s many duties, as is making inspections of Medicaid-approved facilities on behalf of federal regulators.  

The last time the state had a permanent leader for the health department was in January 2022, when Dr. Nicole Alexander-Scott filled the role. She oversaw the handling of the pandemic’s early stages but resigned in 2022 after having been reappointed for another five-year term in 2020. Since then, a merry-go-round of leaders has filled the highest-ranked post at the department’s Capitol Hill offices. First was Dr. Jim McDonald, then Dr. Utpala Bandy. Since March 31, Dr. Staci Fischer has been acting director.  

Larkin also enters the department at a fortuitous time: a recent bid by McKee to raise the position’s salary from $175,000 to $250,000 passed without a hitch. 

Opposition has been minimal to McKee’s recent cabinet appointments. An occasional protest vote squeaks through – like when Sen. Susan Sosnowski, a South Kingstown Democrat, offered the only no to the confirmation of Cory King as the state’s health insurance commissioner. 

Sen. Dawn Euer, a Newport Democrat, was not present for the vote Tuesday.    

On the senate floor, the only no votes came from two senators sitting right next to each other: Bell and DeLuca.  

DeLuca, a Warwick Republican with two decades of EMT experience, was elected in November 2022. Part of his election campaign critiqued state vaccine mandates. DeLuca said via text message Tuesday night that he believed Larkin to be courteous and professional in his discussions with him, and also well-qualified for the position. 

“However, my main concern for whoever fills this role is for the rights of Rhode Islanders in the context of mandatory vaccinations,” DeLuca said. “Dr Larkin could not say with certainty that he would support conscientious objections based on deeply held religious convictions in future pandemic situations, therefore I could not vote affirmatively today.”  

“Now that he has been confirmed, I am hopeful that, in the spirit of our state’s founding by Roger Williams on the basis of religious freedom, he takes these concerns under consideration.” 

Bell, meanwhile, was “concerned” with de la Cruz’s comments about rolling back vaccine mandates, the senator said in a phone call Tuesday. His reason for opposing Larkin’s appointment was instead based on the new department head’s actions as a school committee member. Bell specifically cited the 2020 firing of Tiverton teacher and union president Amy Mullen. Larkin voted in favor of the suspension, the Providence Journal reported in 2020 – a ruling that was eventually overturned in U.S. District Court two months later. 

“There’s a lot of concerns with the Tiverton School Committee about underfunding and not being sufficiently supportive of educational investment,” Bell said. “And I just didn’t see a record there that indicated the kind of champion that the Department of Health needs.” 

Bell could be seen briefly speaking to Larkin before Tuesday’s floor vote, but ultimately he “just couldn’t in good conscience” vote in support of the confirmation. 

“I really hope that we’re going to be in a position where he’s not going to intimidate public health experts,” Bell said. “It’s not a concern with his broader policy views.” 

 Alexander Castro is a staff writer for the Rhode Island Current.