Alum Plays Key Role in Covid-19 Testing and Vaccinations

January 15, 2021

Michelle Phillips, director of ambulatory nursing for Baystate Health and a Greenfield Community College nursing alum, planned to take a cruise last March. As Covid-19 spread, the cruise was cancelled, but she still anticipated taking the week off. When Betty LaRue, COO of Baystate Medical Practices and VP, Baystate Health Ambulatory Operations, asked Phillips to train nurses on nasopharyngeal swabbing, the first method of Covid testing, the vacation was forgotten. Baystate started with one testing site, just for employees, with limited PPE and supplies. Before long, Phillips had taken on a leadership role in setting up and staffing multiple testing sites in the region, only pulling back from these responsibilities in December of 2020. For their life-saving and courageous work, Baystate Health Systems awarded Phillips and a team of 20 the President's Excellence Quality Award, one of the highest honors within the medical system.

Phillips comes from a family of nurses. Her mother is an LPN, her sister Mary Phillips is on the GCC nursing faculty, and she worked as a nurses' aid in high school. Phillips initially took another career route, working in the travel industry for 13 years. That changed when her father was in the hospital in 2005. Watching her sister interacting with the medical staff inspired Phillips, and within a year, she was taking nursing prerequisite courses at GCC. Phillips entered the nursing program in 2007 and graduated in 2009 (all while raising three children). She loved the program and felt it gave her an ideal foundation for further education.

Since she began at GCC, Phillips has been an asset to the college and a role model to its students. She worked as a lab assistant and a tutor, eventually becoming an adjunct faculty member. She also set up a student rotation at her workplace—the first GCC nursing rotation in an ob/gyn office—and she worked closely with each student. "She was one of those students that you knew would be successful," says retired nursing professor Cheri Ducharme, who led the program when Phillips was enrolled. "We are very proud that she started here at GCC."

After GCC, Phillips went on to UMass Amherst, where she completed her bachelor's in nursing in 2011 and her master's in science and nursing in 2015. Phillips began working at Baystate part time in 2006. Once she completed her degree, she worked at Pioneer Women's Health, eventually becoming practice manager. In 2018, Betty LaRue promoted Phillips into a newly created position of Baystate's director of ambulatory nursing, overseeing the nurses and medical assistants for all of their outpatient medical practices.

As Covid continued spreading in the spring, LaRue included Phillips in her Covid response leadership team, to represent nursing and to start the process of setting up testing. The logistics before Phillips were overwhelming: determining how to choose clinical staff, how to train them in proper swabbing technique, how to set up and stock the site, how to manage patients, how to provide them with information, and how to keep track of their health afterwards. Often she worked right alongside the nurses. "I said, ‘I will be right there with you. If you trust me to train you, I will be out there swabbing with you,'" she recalls.

After setting up the Springfield site, Phillips and her colleagues began rolling out new sites each week, expanding to Greenfield, Westfield, and Ware. From there they began working with community health centers, setting up sites to test vulnerable patients in low-income areas, and developed a mobile process to test at locations such as homeless shelters. After these were put in place, Phillips worked on the process to test patients who were coming to Baystate for surgery. When the very first site opened in March, they tested six patients. Now they test over 900 a day throughout the region.

The challenges of Phillips' task are obvious in many ways: the enormity of the work, the risk that those working the sites would contract Covid, skepticism from some in the community and all over social media, and the exhaustion. In addition, they had to contend with weather, since testing was done outside on cold days in March and the hottest days of the summer. The normal complications of daily life didn't stop either. "I was driving to Westfield the first day that site was opening and my car's hood flew open on 91," Phillips recalls. "I pulled over, I shut my hood, I got in my car, and I made it to Westfield."

Throughout the Covid crisis, Phillips has been profoundly impressed with her colleagues and with Baystate. "The way staff and nurses and medical assistants stepped up in the very beginning was amazing. They were so committed and they wanted to see this through." she says. "I've never been so proud to be a nurse."

LaRue has only praise for Phillips and her dedication, resilience, creativity, and ability to develop a true esprit de corps among those working at the testing sites. "This whole pandemic, as tragic as it's been, gives you a lens into who your real stars are," she observes. "When you're in crisis, there are certain people that step up and lean in and work their tails off. Michelle is the exemplar of saying, ‘Whatever it takes, I'll do it.'"

Soon after Phillips stepped away from active work with the Covid testing sites in December, LaRue assigned her to an equally important mission: setting up vaccination sites. Phillips is working with Aaron Michelucci in Pharmacy and Laura McCormick in Employee Health to staff and stock the vaccine site and develop the workflow. For now, they have one vaccination site in Holyoke running 12 hours a day, Monday through Friday, as well as on the weekend, making the vaccine as accessible as possible to Baystate staff across the region.

Whereas the testing sites are often places of great anxiety, the mood at the vaccination site is very different. "Everyone is so happy and positive," Phillips says. "Some people come out after their vaccines with tears of joy." They still have very difficult work ahead, but they can see the light at the end of the tunnel. "I've been at both ends of Covid, the emotional roller coaster of setting up the testing and now being part of the vaccinations. There's good days and there's bad days, but at the end of the day, we're heading in the right direction."


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