Rhode Island Health Director Dr. Nicole Alexander-Scott is resigning her post, leaving a major leadership hole at a time when the state’s health care system is straining under the pandemic’s latest wave.

Gov. Daniel J. McKee’s office, which announced her departure Thursday, said the governor “regretfully” accepted her resignation. Alexander-Scott approached McKee about her plans “a few weeks ago” and he asked her to reconsider, a spokesperson for McKee’s office said, declining to elaborate.

Alexander-Scott has agreed to remain in her current role as director for the next two weeks while the governor searches for a replacement, according to her Jan. 13 resignation letter to McKee. Thereafter, she said, she will be available for “consultation” for one month with whomever is appointed as the interim-director. McKee said in a statement that Alexander-Scott will consult for the department for three months after her departure.

Alexander-Scott did not say why she was leaving or address the timing of her departure, which comes as short-staffed hospitals are straining as the Omicron variant surges and a proposed merger is pending between the state’s two largest hospital systems, Lifespan and Care New England. Under the merger, the combined hospital system would enter into an affiliation with Brown University. 

“The Health Department plays a crucial role’’ in evaluating the merger, said Steven DeToy, a spokesman for the Rhode Island Medical Society. “Having leadership over there is going to be essential.”

Alexander-Scott’s abrupt resignation drew sharp words from some of McKee’s opponents in the 2022 governor’s race. 

“After recent reports of failed action on the part of Gov. Dan McKee, her departure signals a lack of confidence in his leadership and handling of COVID19,’’ Secretary of State Nellie M. Gorbea, a Democrat running for governor, said in a statement. “Her departure creates a real vacuum in leadership during the biggest public health crisis in a generation,’’ Gorbea said.

General Treasurer Seth Magaziner, also a Democratic gubernatorial candidate, said in a statement that “it is important now, more than ever, for Governor McKee and all Rhode Islanders, to listen to experts like [Alexander-Scott] as we navigate the pandemic and work together to build a healthier state."

State House leaders praised Alexander-Scott’s leadership. 

“It’s a big loss to the state,” said Sen. Louis P. DiPalma, a Democrat from Middletown and chair of the Senate Committee on Rules, Government Ethics & Oversight. “She’s really been a steady rudder for us the last two years.”

Alexander-Scott’s “expertise, guidance and reassuring presence have helped Rhode Islanders navigate an incredibly anxious and challenging time,’’ Senate President Dominik J. Ruggerio said in a statement. 

Alexander-Scott has earned the respect of department colleagues as a professional and a collaborator who follows the science and federal public health recommendations. Appointed health director  by former Gov. Gina Raimondo in April 2015, Alexander-Scott became a strong advocate for the role of social and economic inequities in public health, from addressing the opioid epidemic to the coronavirus pandemic. During the pandemic, her background in the social inequities of health care also positioned her as a strong advocate for addressing barriers to testing and vaccination.

Several health department colleagues said they only learned of her resignation on Thursday, and said they were saddened by the news. 

“At the Health Department we all love her,’’ said Dr. Philip A. Chan, an infectious disease specialist and a consultant medical director at the department. “We have deep, tremendous respect for her and wish her the best in all her future endeavors…It’s a terrible loss for us here in Rhode Island.”

Dr. Elizabeth Lange, a pediatrician and president of the Rhode Island Medical Society, said that Alexander-Scott has “kept laser focused on health disparities” and she leads “with science and collaboration.’’ Lange added,  “I’m eternally grateful” for her work.

In her letter to McKee, Alexander-Scott stressed the importance of public health.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the important work of public health officials across the country,’’ she said in the letter. “I am proud to have led RIDOH in the service of the people of this state during such a critical period.’’

This story has been updated.

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