Gov. McKee appoints interim state health director while RI searches for Alexander-Scott replacement

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PROVIDENCE — On Dr. Nicole Alexander-Scott's last day at the helm of the state Health Department, Gov. Dan McKee named an interim leadership team that includes the high-profile Dr. James McDonald as interim director while a search is underway for a new director.

McDonald has been the $190,654 medical director of the state Department of Health, perhaps best known to Rhode Islanders who watched former Gov. Gina Raimondo's daily COVID updates on TV during the early months of the pandemic as the doctor who used props to explain what was known at the time.

Dr. James McDonald, interim director of the state Department of Health, speaks to reporters at a news conference in East Providence on Thursday.
Dr. James McDonald, interim director of the state Department of Health, speaks to reporters at a news conference in East Providence on Thursday.

Together, McDonald and Alexander-Scott and then-Deputy Director Ana Novais led the public-health fight against the coronavirus pandemic during those scary early months.

But earlier this month, first Alexander-Scott and then the health department's deputy director, Thomas J. McCarthy, resigned without explanation.

Alexander-Scott will make $46,000 per month as a consultant to the state starting in March, according to a copy of her instantly controversial contract released Monday.

McKee's plan: the affable McDonald, who has indicated he does not want the top job permanently, will assume the day-to-day responsibilities of state health director.

And there he was Thursday facing reporters alongside McKee at a COVID briefing in East Providence.

"Let me help the governor right now. Let me help in the search for that permanent person and we'll see where that brings us," McDonald said when asked if he is interested in taking the director job full time.

McKee has said he tried to get Alexander-Scott to stay on as health director, but she refused.

Why pay her $138,000 for three months of work if she wants to leave?

"She said she had a window of opportunity in more than one meeting, and I asked her to stay," McKee said. "Each time it accelerated ... When I have people I work with that tell me they have a window of opportunity we want to make sure that happens. And then I asked for a professional transition."

"I believe there is a value to having an outgoing director be in a situation where we call on her if we need her and there was a negotiation in terms of what that value was."

Alexander-Scott has not ruled out running for the state's Second Congressional District seat, to which Rep. Jim Langevin is not seeking reelection.

Asked what the "window of opportunity" was, McKee said he didn't know.

McKee spokesman Matt Sheaff said Alexander-Scott did work Thursday and "had meetings with her senior team."

Chief Glenn J. Quick of the East Providence Fire Department sets out home COVID test kits for residents to take before Thursday's news conference at Parkway Towers in East Providence.
Chief Glenn J. Quick of the East Providence Fire Department sets out home COVID test kits for residents to take before Thursday's news conference at Parkway Towers in East Providence.

State to distribute rapid tests

In pandemic news Thursday, McKee said the state had secured 500,000 new rapid COVID tests and would begin distributing them for free starting Friday.

Most of the tests, 70%, will be divvied up between municipalities to give away and the remaining 30% will go to the state's "Healthy Equity Zones."

McKee also said federal medical assistance at Kent Hospital in Warwick would be "extended a few weeks."

Novais, who most recently held the title of assistant secretary, Executive Office of Health & Human Services, will return to the health department to provide "operational support."

Other members of the newly named health department leadership team include former Auditor Gen. Ernest Almonte, on loan from his current job as Lt. Gov. Sabina Matos' chief of staff, and the Rev. Chris Abhulime, McKee's deputy chief of staff.

“Our administration has moved quickly to put an experienced leadership team in place at the Rhode Island Department of Health to ensure that our COVID-19 response remains strong,” McKee said.

McDonald's background

A May 2020 Journal profile of McDonald described him as a doctor who also holds a master’s degree in public health, the medical director of the department’s overdose prevention program as well as medical director for the department’s Center for Health Systems and Policy.

He is also "a man with a philosophical bent — a former Navy officer who spent years early in his medical career with the federal Indian Health Service, assigned to the Navajo Nation reservation in Arizona, which has been devastated by coronavirus disease."

Dr. James McDonald, interim director of the Department of Health, speaks to reporters Thursday.
Dr. James McDonald, interim director of the Department of Health, speaks to reporters Thursday.

McDonald grew up in Cohoes, New York, a small town on the Hudson River north of Albany. His father was a state appraiser, his mother a pharmacist who operated Marra’s Pharmacy, a family business now run by McDonald’s brother John.

“My first major in college was photography,” McDonald said. “I always wanted to be a doctor, yet thought it was impossible.”

But at age 19, he said, “I took the risk and chased my dreams.”

He earned his medical degree from the Loyola Stritch School of Medicine in Chicago, served a pediatric residency in the Navy, and a preventive medicine residency from the State University of New York. He received his master’s in public health from the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill.

Years with Navajo Nation followed. He came to the Rhode Island Department of Health in 2012 after serving as Director of Health Services for Naval Health Clinic New England in Newport, a post he’d held since 2008.

“I am looking forward to leading the Rhode Island Department of Health in this interim capacity as we continue the critical work of managing the COVID-19 pandemic and delivering the dozens of other vital public health services on which Rhode Islanders rely,” McDonald said Thursday.

“As a team, we will continue to work toward our aim of giving every Rhode Islander and every community an equal opportunity to be healthy and thrive.”

Novais held numerous titles at the Department of Health, including deputy director, education and outreach coordinator focusing on children's health issues, and as the minority health coordinator "charged with assuring the department addressed the health needs of the racial and ethnic minority communities," according to the governor's office.

Abhulime has a doctor of veterinary medicine degree and a master's degree in laboratory science, and is "an accomplished clinical/biopharmaceutical scientist" with more than 15 years of experience, according to McKee's office.

In this temporary assignment, Abhulime will provide operational support to the health department.

As auditor general for 16 years, Almonte was responsible for the state's financial, performance and fraud audits. He also "provided due diligence on casino mergers and compliance with state agreements, insight on pensions, and audits of quasi-public agencies and municipalities,'' according to his resume.

"In this temporary assignment, Almonte will provide managerial support on department finances, budgeting and other fiscal operations," the governor's office said.

This article originally appeared on The Providence Journal: McKee names interim state health director, leadership team

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