STORY OF THE WEEK: Dr. Nicole Alexander-Scott was the right person in the right place at the right time when the pandemic came to Rhode Island. Although she had never faced a challenge of that …
STORY OF THE WEEK: Dr. Nicole Alexander-Scott was the right person in the right place at the right time when the pandemic came to Rhode Island. Although she had never faced a challenge of that magnitude, her training as an epidemiologist offered a strong foundation. Together with former Gov. Gina Raimondo, Alexander-Scott became the public face of the state’s COVID response – with two women, one white, one black, shepherding Rhode Island through an unexpected crisis, in part through effective and frequent public communication.
The director also put a spotlight on issues of equity in healthcare, no small matter since COVID disproportionately affected poor communities such as Central Falls. Being state Health director is difficult even under the best of circumstances, due to pressure from different constituencies – the governor’s office, the legislature, the medical community. And fluctuations in the the state’s pandemic indicators fluctuated were probably inevitable.
Now Alexander-Scott has announced her departure as state Health director, to the disappointment of many admirers. It speaks well of her record that she is in demand for a number of future opportunities. The Brooklyn native’s pending exit comes at a critical time for healthcare in Rhode Island, with Omicron surging and the proposed merger of Lifespan and Care New England; she plans to stay on as a consultant for three months.
Leading the state’s COVID response was demanding, and Alexander-Scott has been on the job for almost seven years. Nonetheless, her letter of resignation offers a window on the strains evident between her and Gov. Dan McKee; the tone of the correspondence is cool, laying out the terms of her exit, with none of the standard description of what a pleasure it has been serving with the administration.
MERGER: Brown President Christina Paxson isn’t exactly brimming with confidence that state and federal regulators will approve the proposed merger between Lifespan and Care New England. “I think there’s a chance that this will go through – a better than 50-50 chance,” Paxson said during an interview on Political Roundtable. The uncertain outlook notwithstanding, Paxson remains a prominent supporter of the merger and the related plan to create an academic health system with Brown. A report commissioned by the university finds that the merger will offer billions in economic benefits to the state. Paxson said the merger would have an array of other positive effects, from helping with stalled efforts to make Rhode Island into a hub for life sciences to creating a better balance between preventative healthcare and treating disease. “With a lot of collaboration between the med school the School of Public Health,” she said, “we’re in a position to help the health system in the state craft an overall plan that improves population health, that prevents disease, but also make sure that when people do get ill, they get the best possible treatments.” But if regulators frown on the proposed merger, Rhode Island will find itself back in a familiar place, with a lot of unanswered questions about the state’s future hospital landscape.
COVID: Lots of ongoing news on the COVID front: President Biden has dispatched military personnel to help in Rhode Island. The Omicron peak is close at hand. Gov. McKee sent the National Guard to one hospital, after weeks of calls for assistance by healthcare professionals. My colleague Lynn Arditi reported that Rhode Island hospitals had the third-highest rate of staffing shortages as of January. The surge of cases is also hitting the SouthCoast of Massachusetts.
BLAKE’S NO SHOW: A Lively Experiment, the weekly public affairs gabfest on RI-PBS, features a segment each year with the Democratic majority leaders and GOP minority leaders of the House and Senate. House GOP Leader Blake Filippi declined to be a part of the taping last Friday, because he did not want to display a vaccine card. “I’d love to be on the show, but will not produce my private medical records to gain access to your studio,” Filippi said in a statement provided on request to TGIF by Lively host Jim Hummel. “My medical records are between me and my doctor. Medical privacy is sacrosanct, and standing up for it is more important than any discussion we would have today. I hope the studio realizes its policy deprives viewers of different perspectives on crucial issues and will change course.”
STATEHOUSE CHATTER: While the speakership is often called the most powerful political office in Rhode Island, it’s also got a well-deserved reputation as a terminal office, due in large part to the controversy that comes with wielding power. So what to make of a rumor this week that former Speaker Nicholas Mattiello is flirting with a possible independent run for governor? This sounds like a non-starter, on a lot of fronts. Mattiello lost election in his own rep district in 2020 to Rep. Barbara Ann Fenton-Fung (R-Cranston), as the gum of various controversies increasingly stuck to his shoes. And Rhode Islanders generally have a dim view of the General Assembly as an institution. On the other hand, it’s not to imagine Mattiello relishing the idea of a return to power, and he could potentially take some votes from Gov. McKee. As it stands, the state Lobby Tracker shows that Mattiello is bringing in more than $8,000 in monthly billing (through lobbying for Lifespan, the RI Assisted Living Association and Meeting Street). Would he really want to relinquish his role with Mark Ryan’s firm, or is something else afoot with the floating of this rumor? Mattiello did not respond to my efforts to reach him for comment.
PRYOR NOTICE: RI Commerce Secretary Stefan Pryor appeared intent for a time about jumping into the race for general treasurer – an office due to be vacated after two terms by gubernatorial candidate Seth Magaziner. Yet Pryor did not form a campaign last year, meaning he passed on the opportunity to raise money before the end of 2021, and it remains unclear if he still plans to run. In a statement, Pryor said, “I remain focused on my duties as Commerce secretary, including the ramping of the [ARPA] downpayment-funded small business relief program and the advancing of key economic development projects. However, I’m truly flattered by the continued interest in this question and very much look forward to sharing more about future possibilities.” Elsewhere in the race, former Central Falls Mayor James Diossa, a Democrat, has announced a campaign, and former Cranston Mayor Allan Fung, a Republican remains a potential candidate.
OUT OF TOWN NEWS: ProJo owner Gannett is killing its Saturday print editions in a lot of places, but not in Rhode Island, Dan Kennedy reports.
BROWN: Brown University President Ruth Paxson marks her tenth anniversary as president later this year. Asked how long she hopes to stay in the post, Paxson said she has no immediate plans to leave, adding, “I would like to see some of the things that we have in play, including building health and healthcare in Rhode Island, building out innovation and commercialization in the Jewelry District -- I’d like to see those things move a little bit farther along before I pass the reins over to somebody else. But that’s not for me to decide. That’s for the Corporation at Brown University to decide.”
SHORT TAKES: Paxson said she doesn’t know why Brown’s Taubman Center got out of the practice of doing political polls, although she said such entities sometimes shift directions .… Congrats to former Raimondo comms director Michael Raia, a devout Washington Nationals fan, on the launch of his new outfit, Half Street Strategic Consulting …. Esquire columnist Charlie Pierce likes U.S. Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse’s argument about how dark money is affecting the U.S. Supreme Court … Nourish RI unveiled an effort last week to use ARPA funds to fight hunger and promote healthy eating at the same time.
KICKER: Aspiring actor Matt DaSilva, a former valedictorian in North Providence, past field director for Aaron Regunberg, and son of NP School Committee member Rod DaSilva, had a cameo earlier this month – as Manny the deli guy – on the CBS hit FBI.
Ian Donnis can be reached at email@example.com. You can follow him on Twitter @IanDon. For a longer version of this column or to sign up for email delivery, visit thepublicsradio.org