Dr. Sarah Moyer, the Louisville health department director and chief health strategist for the city, will soon leave the department for a position at Humana.
Moyer, who became the medical director in 2015 and has helped navigate the city through COVID-19, will become Chief Medical Officer for Humana Healthy Horizons on July 5.
Dr. Jeff Howard will become the interim director and chief health strategist on May 27.
Moyer recently sat down with The Courier Journal for a question-and-answer session. Her comments have been lightly edited for clarity and length.
Q. What are you most proud of from your time as leader of the health department and what do you see as your biggest accomplishment?
A. “Honestly, [I’m] probably most proud of … the restructure and … focus on health equity and improving the health and wellbeing for everyone in our community and how that kind of stuck.
The language has at least been normalized within our department and people are talking about it that way and making sure that everyone has an equal opportunity to thrive in our community. That happened back when I first started back in 2017, and it’s it stayed and [I] hope that it’ll stick while I’m gone.
And biggest accomplishment? Surviving COVID-19. A lot of health directors quit in the middle. So just … proud that [I was] able to lead the team through that, get through that. I mean, we’re not totally done but feel like we’re on to a new phase where it’s more health care-oriented and making sure people are connected to vaccines and medicine.
But then, also … the syringe exchange. That was one of the first things I did [in] like the first six months. Just being able to get past all those political and community hurdles at the start…
I learned a lot from that experience and then just watching that program grow and continue to save lives and prevent disease kind of changed the conversation around substance use disorder. [I’m] also really proud of that.
We were planning for, like, 50 participants and we had 250 by the end of the first month and thousands by the end of the first year. And it’s continuing to grow, unfortunately but fortunately.”
Background: Program hands out 1,352 needles to drug users
(In 2021, the syringe program served 7,000 people and reversed almost 9,000 overdoses with Naloxone, a department spokeswoman said).
Q. What is the biggest lesson you learned in this health role?
A. “The relationships and political will is so important in public health. Someone once advised me when I first started that public health is the intersection of science and politics. And it really is — communicating the science to the community and to politicians.
A lot of what we’re working on, we had the data and the evidence to prove that it was important a hundred, 200 years ago, and we’re still working on how to implement it and get it to the people. So, just how important understanding the system is and how things get done in a community [is] probably the biggest lesson that I learned.
[It] doesn’t matter how right you are until you show people that you care.”
Q. Is there anything the health department is doing right now that you would like to see continued or expanded in the future when it comes to creating a more equitably healthy city?
A. “Yes! I think the more and more we can invest in early childhood and in kids and families at the beginning of life, especially in supporting women, the healthier our city can be.
We spend a lot on those that have less resources at the end the life, but I know … those that are wealthier and have more resources spend a lot on their families and kids at the beginning of life and any ways that we can kind of switch that and turn that around, the healthier everyone in our community will be…
I also think that’ll be huge for tackling a lot of the mental health and issues that come with that, that are happening in our community right now.”
Q. What did Louisville learn from the COVID-19 pandemic that can help us prepare for responding to the next pandemic or the next crisis?
A. “We can accomplish anything, right, if we have the political will and the community backing and resources.
Especially in the beginning, an entire community came together. Nobody was competing … we all had the same fear and the same goal and … everyone was talking and sharing resources and best practices.
We really saw how there wasn’t a disparity in outcomes when that happens. And now that that’s gone away and people think resources are limited again and other things are happening … we’re starting to see that disparity grow … whether it’s access to treatment, or whatever it is.
I know that no matter what the issue is, if we really want to tackle it, we can and [I’m] just hoping that as a community we can come together to do that for more things in the future.”
Q. We’ve talked a lot in the past about vaccine hesitancy, and especially how misinformation drove that hesitancy. How did it feel for you as a health leader to deal with the same pushback on that over and over during the last two years?
A. “It’s more than that, right? I probably got into public health because I wanted people to stop smoking. We’ve known [about] that forever, right? It doesn’t matter how many times you tell someone … to stop.
It’s just trying to build back that trust in government, that trust in science that we’ve lost…
Yes, it’s frustrating, but no more frustrating than anything else that I’ve seen and dealt with in my entire career in public health and as a family physician.
We’ve got a lot of work to do as a community for people to believe in science, in government…
Showing people that we care at the beginning of life or when they’re most in need — hopefully that’ll help build that trust then, that they’ll understand the importance of getting vaccinated or maybe won’t have that hesitancy because they haven’t had bad experiences in the past.”
Q. What did the loss of Dr. (SarahBeth) Hartlage mean to you and the department, both professionally and personally?
A. “Life is really short. Love your kids. She [was] young, just 36. The work that we’re doing is tough and it means a lot to the community, but you still got to take care of yourself and your family and do what’s right for you.
I don’t know … all the factors that went into it. But … no one should pass away at 36.
It was just eye opening and heartbreaking and she did so much good work, and [I’m] grateful for the time we had with her.”
Q. What are you most looking forward to in your new role at Humana?
A. “[I’m] so excited to take everything I’ve learned in my life so far and apply it in a new angle to … try to improve the health of the community.
I’m excited to … expand to all of Kentucky and then also have the … resource and collaboration of Humana … nationwide and working with other people in similar roles across the country.
And just [in] seeing: How can we improve the health with more resources from just the health care side?
[It’s] just exciting to see a lot of the health insurers are kind of becoming health companies … seeing how they value all the social determinants of health and … other ways that can improve health, and it’s not just health care.”
Q. Finally, a fun question to cap us off: What’s your drink of choice, be it alcoholic or non-alcoholic?
A. “I am a big bourbon lover. I always get … bourbon with honey and lemon in it. Also, just bourbon and ginger ale. And then white wine…
But also, water! Huge seltzer water fan.”
Q. Any last thoughts?
A. “I [am] grateful for Louisville [for watching] me kind of grow up these last eight years and believing in me and trusting me to be the messenger with COVID.
And then, I can’t forget my team here in public health… One of the values that we added back in 2017 was ‘grit,’ which is passion and perseverance combined. And they’ve really … embodied that and pushed through. You wouldn’t do this job if you weren’t passionate about the work you did.
And so, [I’m] just grateful that they stayed and how resilient they are and everything we’ve been through these last eight years.”
Reach health reporter Sarah Ladd at [email protected] Follow her on Twitter at @ladd_sarah.
This article originally appeared on Louisville Courier Journal: Sarah Moyer reflects on COVID fight as she prepares to leave city role