Alumna, RIC Student at Forefront of State’s Vaccination Effort

alumna and RIC students

Inside a Sockanossett Cross Road facility in Cranston, Joanne Barrett and Nicole MacKay have been working side by side for months to help Rhode Island emerge from the pandemic.

Barrett ‘13, a major in the Rhode Island Air National Guard (RIANG), has been overseeing the vaccine distribution effort in Cranston and several other sites statewide, while MacKay, a rising RIC senior and staff sergeant in the RIANG, has been under Barrett’s command, guiding vaccine storage and handling efforts behind the scenes in Cranston.  

“Working with Major Barrett has been a great experience,” MacKay says. “She’s got a lot on her plate and handles herself well. She’s an extremely hard worker, showing up early and leaving late. Still, she keeps that bubbly attitude, and that’s great to be around.” 

Barrett returns the praise for MacKay’s efforts. “Nicole is a superstar in the vaccine handling portion of this mission,” she says. “She’s extremely smart, reliable and pays great attention to detail, which is exactly what I need. She has trained more than 25 military members on all three vaccines. She’s also very organized, which helps to get this mission done in a safe, efficient manner. It’s not an easy job she has but she makes it look easy.” 

As vaccine shipments arrived, MacKay and fellow military personnel were responsible for storing the vaccine at proper temperatures and pre-filling syringes. 

“Most people would never see us because when we push the vaccines out the door, it’s really needles to arms,” says MacKay, noting that at the height of vaccination efforts in March she and her colleagues were distributing about 8,500 vaccines per week. 

“We’re giving the community the sense of relief they need,” MacKay says. “You don’t realize the difference you’re making when you’re working all day. This is history, and the kind of thing that the Air National Guard stands for.” 
Barrett, a 21-year veteran in the RIANG, wasn’t sure initially when she was summoned to devise a new system to document the administration of the vaccine at three sites statewide. 

“It’s a big job,” says Barrett, noting that her duties required crash courses in administrative and computer training. “I’m also responsible for training all of the military medical personnel, DMAT, FEMA, vaccinators and vaccine handlers and trainers; and I ensure that RIANG personnel vaccinations are up to date prior to being deployed. The administrative and computer work is a bit out of my realm. I’m more of a hands-on type who relates to people better than computers.” 

Yet the RIANG processed vaccinations so well it garnered the attention of the Rhode Island Department of Health who requested RIANG take over all five mass vaccination sites. Originally RIANG was to assist in vaccinating 12-20,000 health-care workers; however, to date, they’ve administered more than 400,000 vaccines.

When Barrett was first called to map out the RIANG’s vaccine effort in May 2020, she thought it would be a temporary assignment away from her job as a registered nurse at the Providence VA Medical Center. 

Prior to working on the vaccine distribution, MacKay was taking biology courses at RIC and working as an emergency room technician at Rhode Island Hospital. 

Both women say that joining the military has fulfilled a desire to help others. 

MacKay, an East Providence native, figured that a military experience could jumpstart a career in medicine. 

“I got an EMT license and met amazing people from different walks of life,” she says. “The Air Force is like a family. It’s supportive of education, encouraging us to do better inside and outside of the military.”  

Barrett, who was influenced by a cousin to enlist in the Air Force, says it was one of the best decisions she’d ever made. 
“Entering the military gave me stability,” says Barrett, noting that she undergoes annual field and medical training to stay prepared for potential war duty. “I also enjoy the structure within the military because I’m a structured person.” 

Lisa Levasseur, interim director of veteran affairs and military programs at Rhode Island College, says Barrett was a perfect fit for the vaccine distribution leadership role and has risen rapidly through the RIANG ranks. 

“I’ve known Joanne since she enlisted,” Levasseur says. “She has the drive to succeed and is the kind of individual who lights up a room with her personality, making sure other people are 
connecting.” 

MacKay says she cherishes her connection with her RIC professors, who have been very understanding when she’s had to drop everything to serve on RIANG-related medical missions. Before the pandemic struck, MacKay and her unit were dispatched to a secluded town in Georgia.  

“We provided health care to a community that needed it, where there was little access to care and the nearest hospital was miles away,” MacKay recalls. “We conducted physicals, visual screenings and even dental work. It was a really humbling experience.” 
Barrett says she’s similarly humbled each day she encounters veterans at her hospital job. 

“It’s good to give honor to veterans still here and those who are gone,” she says. “That makes me proud. I’m the type of person who gets goosebumps every time I see the (American) flag.” 
Barrett, a married mother of two who lives in Coventry, was on the brink of retiring from the RIANG before the vaccine-related assignment. 

“I decided to stay in and attain major status, which requires three more years of service,” she says. “COVID-19 changed everything.” 
MacKay says her work with vaccine distribution has reinforced her decision to go on to medical school and become an emergency room doctor. 

“While I’m working as an emergency room technician now, I feel like I’m helping people at their lowest point,” she says. “And the goal for me is to give back and always put the patient first.”