PROVIDENCE — Just a week after state health director Dr. Nicole Alexander-Scott resigned, deputy director Tom McCarthy confirmed Thursday he would also be stepping away from the department.
In mid-February 2021, McCarthy had previously been appointed by former governor Gina M. Raimondo as the state’s executive director of the COVID-19 response, right before she left Rhode Island for Washington D.C. to become the US Secretary of Commerce. In December 2021 he was promoted to deputy director of the state health department.
McCarthy told the Globe that it was his decision to leave, and that he would be taking the month of February off. In March, he will start a new position at United Us, a technology company that builds coordinated care networks of health and social service providers.
The company is based in New York City, but McCarthy said he and his family will stay in Rhode Island. A native Rhode Islander, He and his wife, Jessica McCarthy, a spokeswoman for Care New England Health System, and their two school-age daughters moved back to Rhode Island about three years ago.
McCarthy was brought into the health department when there were a number of issues with the state’s vaccine rollout. Residents faced technology glitches when signing up for appointments, there was an issue with access and trust, and homebound individuals were risking their lives to get vaccinated against COVID-19.
McCarthy came in and looked for solutions, providing a steady hand in executing operations to build out state-run vaccine clinics. He stood shoulder-to-shoulder with Alexander-Scott at the governor’s weekly press conferences, and helped present clear information to residents about when they would be able to get their loved ones vaccinated.
He listened to Rhode Islander’s complaints about the rollout, vaccine hesitancy, and their most recent grapples with COVID-19 testing where results for PCR tests would take several days.
In all cases, he told the Globe in a May 2021 interview, he prioritized building trust with Rhode Islanders.
“If you weren’t providing information and if you weren’t a trusted agent yet, that vacuum of information would very quickly be filled with someone else’s narrative,” McCarthy said. “Knowing that the health and safety of all Rhode Islanders is reliant on this operation to be successful has made this so unique and special from any position I held previously.”
McCarthy was previously a soldier in the US Army Aviation Branch. Early in his career as a cavalry officer in Iraq and Afghanistan, he partnered with local authorities to help restore governance and security in the region. He would work on projects that would ensure access to clean drinking water and help deliver essentials such as food and medical supplies to civilians. And it was during a time when there was little trust for outsiders or the local government.
McCarthy retired from active duty as a major in 2017 and became the director Pharmacy Benefits Management Innovation at CVS Health, which is based in Woonsocket, R.I., But when COVID-19 hit, he said he wanted to help the state.
He left CVS in May 2020 to become the chief of staff for the state education department. Given his background in developing operational plans, he was tasked with leading school reopenings, working alongside the Rhode Island National Guard, the department of children and families, and the state health department.
With the Omicron variant surging throughout the state and hospitals in crisis Rhode Island’s health department will soon be without its two leaders.
McKee announced during his State of the State address on Tuesday that he would be putting together a committee of local physicians and public health experts to search for a new director to lead the health department. Sources from within the department’s ranks told the Globe that “several” people have declined the governor’s offer to become director, including high-profile medical consultants for the department.
It’s unclear if the governor’s committee will now also search for a deputy director to take McCarthy’s place.
Alexander Scott, who was also an appointee of Raimondo, had led the department since 2015. When her resignation letter was accepted by Governor Dan McKee last week, she was in the middle of her second Senate-confirmed five-year term, which was to run through 2025.
She did not say what her next steps would be.
Both Alexander-Scott’s and McCarthy’s departures come after months of tensions between the health department and other parts of the governor’s administration.
Sources on both sides, including McKee’s own advisors, have confirmed a fracture between the governor, who was concerned about the impact strong-armed public health measures would have small businesses, while Alexander-Scott and her team recommended that the state act more aggressively in the name of public health.
But the tension between Alexander-Scott and McKee was never shown in public. In his State of the State address on Tuesday, McKee thanked Alexander-Scott for her service, and attendees gave her a standing ovation.
“Serving as the Director of the Rhode Island Department of Health has been the most rewarding experience of my career,” Alexander-Scott had said in a statement.