Dr. James McDonald, a state medical director who heads the board of licensure and discipline, will serve as interim director of the Rhode Island Department of Health, Governor Daniel J. McKee announced Thursday.

McDonald, a pediatrician, will assume the day-to-day operations of Health Director Dr. Nicole Alexander-Scott, who is stepping down from the directors’ post at the end of the day. McDonald declined to say if he would remain in the position permanently if offered the job. “I just want to help the governor right now,” he said during a news conference Thursday. “Can I just leave it at that for now?”

Alexander-Scott has agreed to help with the transition for three months at $46,000 per month. Her annual salary is $143,000.

McDonald, whose annual salary is listed as  $190,655, has been at the forefront of the department’s efforts in recent years to address the opioid epidemic. He also has been a key member of Rhode Island’s COVID-19 leadership team and co-hosted a podcast, Public Health Out Loud, on the pandemic with Dr. Philip Chan, an infectious disease specialist. 

McDonald will be part of a transition team that includes Ana Novais, the assistant secretary of the Executive Office of Health and Human Services; Eric Almonte, chief of staff for Lt. Gov. Sabina Matos, and Christopher Abhulime, McKee’s deputy chief of staff, . 

In their temporary assignments, Almonte will provide managerial support on department finances, budgeting, and other fiscal operations; Novais will provide daily operational support to McDonald and the department in areas such as policy, programming and legislative processes, the governor’s office said in a statement.

“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 in the statement. “I thank Dr. McDonald, Assistant Secretary Novais, Ernie Almonte, and Chris Abhulime for stepping up and I look forward to continuing to work with all of them during this transition. I also want to thank the career staff at the Department of Health who continue to do the work of ensuring access to quality health services for all Rhode Islanders.”

Prior to joining the Health Department, McDonald was director of health services for the Naval Health Clinic New England in Newport. Board certified in pediatrics and preventive medicine, McDonald’s career includes serving as an officer in the U.S. Navy. He lives in North Kingstown with his wife and three children.

This story has been updated.

Health reporter Lynn Arditii can be reached at larditi@thepublicsradio.org. Follow her on Twitter @LynnArditi