PROVIDENCE – Brooke Lawrence was in the men’s room, of all places, at a Red Sox-Phillies spring training game in Clearwater, Fla., last March when he started to realize that COVID-19 was about to change life for everyone.
Lawrence noticed there was an unusually long line to wash his hands, a sign that at least some baseball fans were listening to the experts who were warning about a contagious virus that had reached the United States.
“I said, ‘Look at us waiting in the line to wash our hands, like our mothers taught us,’ ” he recalled. “Then I stepped outside and said, ‘This is not good.’ That was kind of the end of normal.”
The next day, Lawrence flew home to Rhode Island, where he leads the Rhode Island Disaster Medical Assistance Team’s Medical Reserve Corps, to get back to work. A few days later, the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic.
A year later, Lawrence and his team are still working.
The state’s Medical Reserve Corps was largely unknown before the pandemic, although anyone who has been to the air show at Quonset or the Newport jazz and folk festivals has seen the group. Volunteers often set up the medical aid stations or hand out water at Rhode Island’s major summer events.
But with a massive influx of volunteers during the pandemic, the corps has emerged as a vital resource for the state, helping to facilitate testing and vaccine distribution, backfilling at nursing homes, and collecting personal protection equipment. Lawrence said Rhode Islanders have provided 106,000 volunteer hours since the corps was activated a year ago, and there are currently 1,632 engaged volunteers.
“We like to think of ourselves as the Swiss army knife of public health,” Lawrence said.
The corps is still providing any assistance the state needs, but its recent focus has been the COVID-19 vaccine, with volunteers working in overdrive to vaccinate hard-to-reach populations. That means getting the vaccines to nursing homes, group homes, and people who are developmentally disabled.
Kirkbrae Country Club in Lincoln donated its ballroom to allow the corps to deliver thousands of doses to specialized populations, like those with disabilities, Lawrence said. On March 10, volunteers gave out several hundred shots at the club.
Lawrence said his role has been to “manage energy and create a common vision and set common objectives,” but the organization is driven by its volunteers. He said they’ve been supporting Rhode Islanders for the entire year, including on the hottest days of the summer and when snow was falling in recent weeks.
“The true heroes are the people out in the field,” Lawrence said.
The corps saw an immediate spike in volunteers last year when then-governor Gina Raimondo called on residents to lend a helping hand by signing up at RIresponds.org. It is still accepting volunteers, and members are quick to say that a medical background is not required.
“If you can drive a car and have an active driver’s license, I can find a way for you to help,” said Erin Ferguson, the corps’ volunteer coordinator.
Ferguson, who grew up in Newton, Mass., graduated from the University of Rhode Island, and joined organization a year ago, said the corps has spent a lot of its time in Central Falls and helping the Providence Housing Authority with vaccine distribution, but it has supported every community in the state.
From its tiny headquarters in West Greenwich, the corps collected 1 million pieces of personal protection equipment early on and helped to distribute all of it. As the death toll rose, the corps also distributed body bags to funeral homes
At the peak of the pandemic, volunteers found themselves helping at nursing homes and group homes where too many members of the staff had tested positive. At a group home in Warwick, volunteers dressed head-to-toe in personal protection equipment and went to rooms where patients were infected to sign on to iPads and allow them to contact their families.
“It’s kind of great because there’s a moment every single day that uplifts you from the heartbreaking things,” Ferguson said.
More than 100,000 residents have now been fully vaccinated, and state leaders say they believe they are starting to see light at the end of the tunnel.
The corps is committed to seeing the work through until the end.
Lawrence said the corps is uniquely positioned to continue assisting with vaccine distribution. He noted that the corps last assisted with vaccines in 2009, when the H1N1 virus swept through the country. He said the corps focused on children, and that led to Rhode Island having the highest vaccination rate in the country.
Lawrence said he never imagined the pandemic would last 12 months, but he now believes the corps will be active for another six months.
“If there’s a challenge, we rise to that challenge to overcome it,” Lawrence said.