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Photo illustration by Sean Parsons. Source photo: Courtesy of Cartier Women’s Initiative (Sarah Tuneberg)

Meet the Woman Leading the State’s Innovation Response Team

Sarah Tuneberg has been using her experience in public health and emergency management to help guide Colorado into its new normal.

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By late March, it looked like Governor Jared Polis’ plan to shutter the state was working: The novel coronavirus’ spread appeared to have slowed. Hospitals were adding ventilators. More people were getting tested. Polis had extended the stay-at-home order to April 26 but remained optimistic about reopening Colorado come May. The problem was, he wasn’t sure how, stating that “until there’s a vaccine or cure, things won’t return to the way they were in January or February.”

The fear was that lifting all restrictions could lead to another surge of the virus that would overwhelm hospitals. To help devise a plan to gradually reopen the state, Polis created the Innovation Response Team (IRT), a public-private consortium of more than 200 representatives in fields ranging from IT to academia. And to lead the group, he needed an entrepreneur who also had experience in public health and emergency management. Selecting Sarah Tuneberg, Polis says, was an easy choice.

A 40-year-old Boulder native and veteran of 50-plus presidentially declared disasters, Tuneberg worked her first catastrophe in 2005 when, while getting a master’s in public health at Tulane University, she helped with the fallout from Hurricane Katrina. She then became a consultant, advising governments and companies following calamities like the 2010 Haiti earthquake and the 2013 Colorado floods. Tuneberg stood out by pioneering a new approach for determining the most vulnerable populations during a disaster. Previously, emergency plans focused on getting aid to areas with the most 911 calls. Tuneberg realized such communications weren’t necessarily indicative of where people were truly in need and that infrastructure and resources could help predict those locations. During a heat wave, for example, regions without tree cover will experience higher temperatures and residents will suffer greater consequences.

In 2017, Tuneberg co-founded Geospiza, a Denver company that brings clarity to emergency management with data mining. As a consultant, she’d used convoluted spreadsheets and old maps to make decisions. “My friends in the private sector had these incredible business intelligence tools,” Tuneberg says. “I was still working with this manual process.” Geospiza’s software culls information from various sources, including the census and social media. Last year, Kansas City hired the startup to determine which homes were most vulnerable to fires. After dispersing free smoke detectors based on Geospiza’s findings, the city’s home-fire count dropped by 30 percent.

Spearheading Colorado’s response to a worldwide pandemic, however, is a challenge even Tuneberg hasn’t experienced. “We missed the window to suppress the virus with testing and had to bring the hammer, which was stay-at-home orders,” Tuneberg says. “Now comes a dance to make sure we don’t have a big peak again.” To help, the IRT consulted on Colorado’s safer-at-home guidelines announced in mid-April—measures intended to limit the virus’ spread while the state’s economy revives. At press time, the IRT was still developing other strategies, such as improving testing capacity and expanding ways—including contact tracing—to track infections. Tuneberg admits such planning is tough when we still know so little about the virus. Fortunately, she’s no stranger to dealing with disaster.

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