Rhode Island's interim health director, Dr. James V. McDonald, is stepping down from his post, Governor Dan McKee’s office announced Thursday.

McDonald, 59, who has led the Health Department since Dr. Nicole Alexander-Scott stepped down as director in mid-January, is leaving to move closer to his family in upstate New York, where he is originally from, McDonald confirmed in an email to The Public’s Radio. 

“My family life has changed significantly since we spoke about me being Interim Director in January of 2022,” McDonald said in a letter to McKee which the governor’s office shared with the news media. “These changes have compelled me to spend substantial time in thought, prayer, and painful deliberation.”

McDonald said in the letter that he wants to be closer to help care for his mother, who has Alzheimer’s disease, and his 91-year-old father. His last day on the job will be Friday, July 29. 

It’s not yet clear who will fill McDonald’s role at the Health Department. 

His announced departure comes less than five months after Alexander-Scott stepped down as director. At the time, McDonald deflected reporters’ questions about whether he was a candidate for the top job, saying “I just want to help the governor right now…”

A pediatrician known for his upbeat tone and teacherly approach to explaining medical science, McDonald held many roles during his 10 years in the department, including administrator of the state Board of Medical Licensure and Discipline. McDonald’s profile rose during the pandemic, when he began speaking publicly at news briefings and co-hosting a podcast, Public Health Out Loud, with infectious disease specialists, Dr. Philip Chan. 

Saying that he “never expected to be the voice of the Department,’’ McDonald said in his letter to McKee that “leaving the Department of Health is something I thought I would never do.” He said the job has been “the highlight of my career.”  

“I have such profound respect for the inspiring and selfless team I have had the privilege to serve with and lead,’’ McDonald said in the letter. “Often, their work goes unnoticed, yet public health quietly saves lives each day. Our team is a rare combination of selfless, committed people who serve with passion, purpose, and commitment.’’

McDonald is the third top-ranking official to leave the department during the McKee administration. Shortly after Alexander-Scott’s departure, Thomas McCarthy, former executive director of COVID-19 response, left the department for a job in the private sector. The Health Department is a division of the state Executive Office of Health and Human Services, which has been led by an acting director since the departure May 1 of Secretary Womazetta Jones.  

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