La. deputy who died of COVID-19 remembered for kindness, politeness

Deputy Vanessa Mackey is the first Orleans Parish deputy to succumb to the coronavirus


Matt Sledge
The Times-Picayune

ORLEANS PARISH, La. — Two days before her mother died from the novel coronavirus, Valisha Scott got permission to visit her in the hospital.

Because of infection controls, Scott had to talk to her mother, an Orleans Parish Sheriff's Office deputy, from behind glass through a cracked door.

Deputy Vanessa Mackey is the first Orleans Parish deputy to die from COVID-19 complications. (Photo/TNS)
Deputy Vanessa Mackey is the first Orleans Parish deputy to die from COVID-19 complications. (Photo/TNS)

“It was hard,” Scott said Tuesday. “I just wanted to give her a hug or a kiss. Hold her hand.”

Scott’s mother, Vanessa Mackey, on April 15 became the first Sheriff’s Office deputy to die from COVID-19. Mackey did not have regular contact with inmates, but the death of a deputy known for her buoyant personality underscored the disease’s toll at an agency that has had a significant outbreak. Colleagues last week flooded social media with tributes.

Through Tuesday, 124 of the 701 inmates tested at the New Orleans jail have received positive results for the coronavirus. Some have been released but 87 remain in custody. The virus has also spread to 13 of 50 medical staffers and 68 of 316 Sheriff’s Office staffers who have been tested.

The numbers are high in part because the Sheriff’s Office decided to test all inmates whether or not they exhibit symptoms of COVID-19. Darnley Hodge, the jail’s court-appointed director, said Monday that only five inmates in custody with positive results had symptoms.

Mackey, 59, was a Lower 9th Ward native who lived in Marrero. She had two daughters, two sons, and five grandchildren.

Her biological relatives were only a tiny fraction of the large chosen family Mackey created around her, according to Scott and Henrisha Williams, another daughter. Neighbor kids on their block called her “Mama Nessa.”

“If you met her, you became family,” Williams said. “She was one to open her home to many.”

Mackey followed her then-husband into employment at the Jefferson Parish Sheriff’s Office before Hurricane Katrina. The 2005 storm forced her to move to Lafayette for a year, her daughters said. After her return, she worked as a nursing aid and eventually returned to law enforcement.

Another deputy who trained with her in the 2017 class at the Orleans Parish Sheriff’s Office academy, Alexys Alexander, said Mackey “kept our class together.”

Mackey loved to dance — once even cutting a rug at the shooting range during firearms qualification. She was also respectful to inmates, Alexander said.

“She was older than all of us, but we made sure she kept up," Alexander said. "She was a very, very, lovely energetic lady."

Before the novel coronavirus outbreak in Louisiana, Williams was transferred to an assignment in the jail’s video visitation center, which meant she no longer had regular contact with inmates.

Her relatives aren't sure how she contracted coronavirus. She may have caught it working parade details during Carnival, from a colleague in the Sheriff’s Office mailroom or at a funeral where another mourner later died from COVID-19, her daughters said.

Mackey was hospitalized at the Ochsner Medical Center’s West Bank Campus on March 22 and transferred to the intensive care unit, where she was placed on a ventilator, on April 1. For weeks she fought an up-and-down struggle against pneumonia, low oxygen levels, a collapsed lung and blood clots in her leg, according to her daughters.

“Her body just went through a lot of trauma,” Williams said.

In the last hours of her life, Mackey’s family gathered on a call to a phone in her hospital room.

The call turned into a sprawling gathering much like the ones Mackey had hosted on happier days. First a handful of relatives joined, then more and then more, until it was a “family reunion,” Williams said.

Mackey couldn’t talk, but nurses told the family that she could understand them. Williams said she gets emotional when she thinks of her last words to her mother.

“I just wanted her to know that she did her best for her children,” Williams said. “We will be OK. You have done everything you can possibly do.”

COVID-19: Law enforcement deaths

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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