Colorado’s Coronavirus Testing Guru Resigns As State Moves To Vaccinations, Next Response Phase

Sarah Tuneberg, part of Colorado's COVID-19 response team
David Zalubowski/AP
Sarah Tuneberg, part of Colorado’s COVID-19 response team, wears a mask after Gov. Jared Polis encouraged state residents to wear them while in public as a statewide stay-at-home order remains in effect in an effort to reduce the spread of the new coronavirus Friday, April 3, 2020, in Centennial, Colo.

Just as Colorado wrestles with the logistics of vaccine distribution and concerns about a post-holiday surge of coronavirus cases, a key leader in the state’s COVID-19 response has resigned.

Sarah Tuneberg, the COVID-19 Innovation Response Team Lead for the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment and a senior COVID-19 advisor, will leave her post on Jan. 21, 2020.

“The last several months have been some of the best of my professional career. I am so grateful for the opportunity you both gave me to serve the State of Colorado in this incredibly difficult time,” wrote Tuneberg in an email to health department leaders announcing her resignation.

Tuneberg is in charge of the “Testing and Containment” team, which she said in her resignation letter now numbers more than 400 people.

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In an interview with CPR News, Tuneberg, who comes from the tech startup world, felt like it was the right time to leave because she had built the systems that will serve the state well as the pandemic continues.

“My superpower is building big things really fast. And I have had the incredible opportunity to do that in this difficult time of COVID-19 in Colorado,” said Tuneberg. She said the state’s response is moving toward vaccine distribution, which she isn’t involved in. “I'm super proud of the work. And now we're sort of in this really wonderful transition period.”

Tuneberg helped to scale up testing by working with private labs and also rolled out a major new contact tracing and case investigation system, called Dr. Justina.

“I built the things and they were in place to now do their job and they don't need me anymore. So I really think that's it.”

Tuneberg is blunt-speaking and was not shy about criticizing some of the state’s early moves in response to the pandemic.

“We missed the window to suppress the virus with testing and had to bring the hammer, which was stay-at-home orders,” Tuneberg told 5280 Magazine in June. “Now comes a dance to make sure we don’t have a big peak again.”

As it turned out, Colorado recently had a bigger peak in cases, hospitalizations and deaths, but no fingers pointed at Tuneberg.

“I was sad to hear that Sarah was leaving. I was sad to hear that. I think she’s done an incredible job building testing capacity in the state,” said Randy Evetts, the public health director in Pueblo County. He wasn’t sure why exactly Tuneberg was leaving, but he noted that there’s been turnover generally across public health through the pandemic. “This has been an extremely difficult and stressful event.”

Tuneberg was hired in late March to replace an email entrepreneur, Matt Blumberg, who had no prior public health experience but who had been recruited by Gov. Jared Polis to scale up the state’s testing effort. 

Instead, the state fell well behind its neighbors in the rate of tests performed, a critical metric in the early weeks of the pandemic. After Blumberg returned to New York, Tuneberg took over.

She remembers in late March making breakfast for her kids on a Sunday when she got a call from Brad Feld, a venture capitalist and friend of Polis.

“He called and said, ‘Gov. Polis is putting together this innovation response team. He thinks it'd be really interesting. We need to sort of have lots of tools in the toolbox because this looks like it's going to be an unprecedented pandemic. Are you interested in supporting?’ And two hours later, I was at the emergency operations center,” said Tuneberg. 

What was supposed to be a job for a few weeks turned into nine months.

Tuneberg, a consultant with a background in tech, public health and emergency management, won the respect of local public health officials for expanding the state’s testing capacity, enlisting more private companies and communicating changes more effectively to counties than had previously been the case.

CDPHE director Jill Hunsaker Ryan also praised Tuneberg’s work.

“For the past nine months, Sarah Tuneberg has led the scaling of the state's testing and containment strategies and has been incredibly effective in this role,” Ryan said in a statement. “When she accepted the position, I knew it might not be for the long term, but I am grateful for her service and she will always have a home at CDPHE.”