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From supporting US forces in Afghanistan to running Rhode Island’s COVID-19 response

How Thomas McCarthy, the executive director of the state’s COVID-19 Response Team, took the lessons he learned through multiple tours of duty and applied them to the pandemic.

Tom McCarthy, executive director of the state's COVID-19 response, addresses the media at the weekly COVID-19 press conference in Providence on April 29.
Tom McCarthy, executive director of the state's COVID-19 response, addresses the media at the weekly COVID-19 press conference in Providence on April 29.Gretchen Ertl/For The Boston Globe

PROVIDENCE — Early in his career as a cavalry officer in Iraq and Afghanistan, Thomas McCarthy was partnering with local authorities to help restore governance and security in the region. He would work on projects that would ensure access to clean drinking water and help deliver essentials such as food and medical supplies to civilians.

He was a soldier in the U.S. Army Aviation Branch, and gaining the trust of local residents was a hurdle that took time to overcome. In Afghanistan, where he spent the majority of his deployments, most of the population could not access the Internet, and communication was oftentimes by word-of-mouth. In some areas, there was a tremendous amount of distrust for the local government. And because of some people’s experiences, there was little trust for outsiders as well. Engaging with the civilians on a day-to-day basis was critical.

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“If you weren’t providing information and if you weren’t a trusted agent yet, that vacuum of information would very quickly be filled with someone else’s narrative,” McCarthy recently told the Globe. “While most of my time was in direct combat units, the emphasis was always on building enduring, sustainable capacity among our local counterparts to best serve the people.”

The lessons he learned in Afghanistan serve him well now, as the executive director of Rhode Island’s COVID-19 Response Team. In this role, McCarthy and his team oversee the surveillance COVID-19 testing program, data analytics and modeling teams, public health interventions including treatment and vaccines, and all operations for delivering the state’s COVID response to the public.

McCarthy, who retired from active duty as a major in 2017, was appointed by then-governor Gina M. Raimondo in mid-February.

A native Rhode Islander, McCarthy stands shoulder-to-shoulder with state health director Dr. Nicole Alexander-Scott at the governor’s weekly coronavirus press conferences, presenting clear information to residents about how to get vaccinated and what they can do to help protect their households against COVID-19. He’s listened to the issues that residents have had throughout the vaccine rollout, and has been part of the operational team that has looked for ways to make the vaccine more accessible, to help eliminate hesitancy and, ultimately, build trust.

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While the obstacles he faced in Afghanistan were vastly different, he says the issues of distrust, building rapport, and cutting through misinformation during the pandemic in Rhode Island are familiar.

“Knowing that the health and safety of all Rhode Islanders is reliant on this operation to be successful has made this so unique and special from any position I held previously,” said McCarthy, who grew up in North Kingstown in a full house with three brothers and a sister. He and his wife, Jessica McCarthy, a spokeswoman for Care New England Health System, and their two school-age daughters moved back to Rhode Island about three years ago when he took a job at CVS Health.

He went from being an Aviation Task Force Commander, where he was mentoring and developing more than 60 soldiers, two intelligence analysts, and employing a cavalry troop of seven Apache and a medical team of three Blackhawks in Afghanistan to becoming the director of Pharmacy Benefits Management Innovation at the health care giant.

It was a great position, he said. But when COVID-19 hit, he was “in agony.”

“I had finally come home and my home state was going through one of the most difficult challenges that it had ever faced. And all I wanted to do was jump in and help,” said McCarthy. He left CVS in May 2020 to become the chief of staff for the state education department. Given his background in developing operational plans, he was tasked with leading school reopenings, working alongside the Rhode Island National Guard, the department of children and families, and the state health department.

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Tom McCarthy, executive director of the state's COVID-19 response
Tom McCarthy, executive director of the state's COVID-19 responseGretchen Ertl/For The Boston Globe

He became the executive director of the state’s COVID-19 response team less than a year later.

“Tom is among the very finest and selfless leaders I have served with in nearly 27 years of active duty service,” Brigadier General Bill Ryan, who met McCarthy in 2010 and went on to serve with him in Army Aviation units supporting U.S. and Afghan forces, told the Globe from Afghanistan. McCarthy served as one of Ryan’s subordinate commanders, and Ryan said McCarthy’s performance was “superb in every aspect.”

“I continually gave Tom the most complex challenges in some tough environments, and it is no surprise to me to see him leading this critically important and complex pandemic response effort,” he added.

In the past, McCarthy said, he has had to operate in an environment with a “great deal of ambiguity, with limited support, to gather information, and help create a detailed understanding of the situation that would then drive operations.” It’s a foundation that’s served him well while taking a science and evidence-based approach throughout the pandemic response.

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“He’s dedicated, sharp, and always willing to put in the extra work to accomplish what he knows is best for our state,” Governor Daniel J. McKee said. “We’re lucky to have him.”

But while much of McCarthy’s role is still focused on the ongoing pandemic, he said he’s already planning for recovery.

“How do we leverage this moment in time?” he asked. “We have a potentially once-in-a-lifetime investment from the federal government to really set the conditions for Rhode Island to be successful economically, public health, and education-wise for the next 10 to 20 years.”

The vaccine rollout has been one of the state’s largest operational hurdles. Striving for herd immunity, and with a limited supply of vaccine until recently, the state had to create many of its own systems, eliminate hesitancy, and make the vaccine more accessible for all.

And while there are some aspects of the vaccine rollout that he wishes were done differently, such as making the state’s vaccine scheduling portal more accessible for seniors and those who are not technologically literate, the focus has been on trying to balance everything the state has had going on at once to combat the virus.

“It’s certainly not about a lack of effort,” he said. “When we reflect back on what we do better, I know something that’s top of mind for me is that assuring everything is community-centric.

“After multiple combat tours, the only way you can look at yourself in the mirror at the end of the day was to know that you have done everything you possibly could to make sure that your people, your team, were ready, trained, and had everything they needed to be successful, recognizing that you’re going out to a very uncertain world with a lot of challenges in front of you,” said McCarthy. “It’s still how I think. And how I’ll reflect back on the pandemic years from now.”

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Alexa Gagosz can be reached at alexa.gagosz@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @alexagagosz.