Community remembers pandemic leader Dr. SarahBeth Hartlage
There’s a picture of Dr. SarahBeth Hartlage that her colleague, Ruth Carrico, says shows her essence.
Carrico, an Advanced Practical Registered Nurse, took the photo in January 2021 at LouVax, the city’s mass COVID-19 vaccination site at Broadbent Arena. In it, Hartlage is smiling behind her purple and teal mask. She’s wearing a safety vest and a strand of pearls.
“I'm like, ‘Who's going to wear pearls at a mass vaccination event?’” Carrico said. “Well, SarahBeth did. She was all business but she was going to do it with a level of grace and a level of elegance.”
Hartlage, associate medical director at the Louisville Metro Department of Public Health and Wellness, died unexpectedly March 16 while at a conference in Orlando. The Orange County Medical Examiner’s Office has not released her cause of death and said it could be three months before they do. She was 36.
Hartlage was a force in leading COVID vaccine and testing efforts in the city, including operations at LouVax and, later, its mobile missions.
Carrico, who had experience with mass vaccinations, was brought on early to help with operations at LouVax.
“I don't think we’ll ever have another community event that involves public health without thinking about her,” Carrico said. “And I think our community owes her an incredible debt of gratitude for what she did and … the groundwork she laid.”
Hartlage started with the health department in September 2020, just a few months before COVID vaccines became available nationwide. Dr. Sarah Moyer, director at the department, said Hartlage stepped up to the task of leading the vaccine efforts.
“She didn’t hesitate to embrace the work,” Moyer said in an email.
“She had a gift of taking complex information and explaining it simply. She was committed to sharing the facts about all things COVID, especially the vaccines. She cared deeply about our community and, like any caring and compassionate physician, wanted to empower as many people [as] she could to protect themselves.”
During its operation from January to April 2021, LouVax staff and volunteers provided more than 100,000 COVID vaccines to the community.
Then the health department transitioned to mobile missions, taking the testing, vaccines and information directly to those in communities which may have had lesser access to the mass vaccination site.
“SarahBeth was focused on, ‘We have got to take vaccination to the individuals, to the community,” Carrico said. “‘We’ve got to go to areas where people may not feel comfortable getting a vaccine or where people may not know [how] to get a vaccine.’”
EvaMelissa Astudillo leads business and strategic development at La Casita Center, an organization serving Louisville's Latino community. She said the partnership with the health department was crucial.
Working with the health department, La Casita provided COVID information to the community. They worked together to deliver the more than 1,700 COVID vaccines during 12 mobile clinics – of the nearly 500 the health department has done across the city.
“The health department, and Dr. Hartlage, was very intentional in making sure all the communities were having that access to the tools, resources, so that we all could do the best that we can for our families to be safe and healthy,” Astudillo said.
“And I think that’s going to be a huge part of the legacy of Dr. Hartlage.”
Hartlage also participated in Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer’s regular COVID briefings, providing updates on community transmission levels and government guidance.
Fischer said she left a “legendary reputation” with the city and the health department and praised her work in organizing such a massive vaccination effort.
“She responded in an amazing fashion,” he said. “There was so much joy in that facility because people just wanted to help. Retired nurses, nursing students, the nursing association … it was an incredible group of professionals that came together.”
Barbara Lee, a retired Registered Nurse in Louisville, was one of them. She started volunteering at LouVax in February 2021 and has stayed on to assist with the mobile missions.
She recalls an event at the Smoketown Family Wellness Center when they first started giving the shots to kids.
“She had gone to Target and bought every kid-friendly Band-Aid design that she could find so that the kids could come in and pick their own Band-Aid before they got a shot,” Lee said. “I think it's very telling about compassion, understanding.”
She said she knows that those who worked most closely with Hartlage will carry her mission for public health forward.
“What we saw was something pretty special and somebody really special involved in that and I don't think I'll forget that,” Lee said.
During her last appearance at a weekly COVID briefing, March 8, Hartlage looked back on the first two years of the pandemic and the city’s COVID response, particularly the vaccine effort she helped lead.
“The big takeaway for me is that we were able to see what talented people can do when they are empowered to do good work,” she said. “It was a monumental undertaking and it honestly was a huge amount of work but it was also a huge amount of fun.
“It was a privilege to do that work and to be a part of it and I’ll treasure that forever.”
Dr. Moyer, the health department’s director, said they will continue to mourn the loss of Hartlage and continue her mission.
“We will honor her through our work and commitment of doing all we can to create a healthy Louisville where everyone and every community can thrive,” Moyer said.
Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly identified the Smoketown Family Wellness Center.