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Responses to Covid-19 by Federal History Offices

The Society is gathering articles and information on how various agencies, departments, offices responded to the Covid-19 pandemic since March 2020. 

To submit an article, please email

Defense Logistics Agency 
Abstract: Combating the Coronavirus” tracks the Defense Logistics Agency’s role in helping the federal government respond to the COVID-19 pandemic. As the buyer of ventilators and personal protective equipment for the Defense Department, DLA had the expertise and purchasing power to conduct contracting actions for the Federal Emergency Management Agency and Department of Health and Human Services. Over the first four months of the crisis, the agency supplied army and navy hospitals deployed to coronavirus hotspots across America, flights organized by U.S. Transportation Command to bring much-needed PPE material into the country, aircraft carriers in the Pacific either struck by the virus or quarantining to prevent its outbreak, and over 15,000 nursing homes. In addition, contracts written by DLA prevented small businesses from having to close their doors and refilled national stockpiles depleted early in the crisis. While accomplishing all this provision, other elements of the agency developed new ways of tracking on-hand medical material for the federal government, proposed a mechanism for the Joint Staff to decide who in the Defense Department received what PPE when, came up with new ways to manufacture protective equipment, and processed donations from U.S. corporations. The Defense Logistics Agency was able to accomplish all this support due to the mobilization of resources during the crisis and structural, financial, and acquisition decisions made long before it hit.

U.S. Department of the Interior Museum Documents COVID-19

By Tracy Baetz

The U.S. Department of the Interior Museum’s collection documents the work of the Department of the Interior and includes objects relating to key issues and events in the agency’s history. COVID-19 has impacted the people and places of Interior in myriad ways, and with that has come an opportunity to assemble resources and to collect objects reflecting the Departmental response. These materials will serve as touchstones to help contextualize these unprecedented times for future generations.

The Interior Museum has heard from field staff throughout the country supplying anecdotes and images unique to the Interior’s experiences with the pandemic. Examples include:

  • An aerial photograph of the National Mall taken in April showing the effects of reduced visitation; the turf is as lush as any time in recent memory.
  • An official memorandum from the Office of the Solicitor identifying the bearer as “an essential federal government employee, free to travel without regard to any quarantine, shelter-in-place or other local restriction.”
  • A large-scale COVID-themed public art mural in Shiprock, New Mexico, in the Navajo Nation bearing the message, “Beware of COVID-19 / STAY SAFE / STAY STRONG EVERYONE / T'ahdii kǫ́ǫ́ honiidlǫ́ [We are still here]”.
  • A banner welcoming employees back to the Bureau of Reclamation regional office in Billings, Montana, as part of the phased reopening.

In addition, the Interior Museum has processed two new accessions to the museum’s collection:

Cloth face masks handmade by volunteers in the Period Costume and Textiles Department at the National Park Service’s Fort Vancouver National Historic Site, Vancouver, Washington.

Beginning in early March, volunteers—who normally sew apparel for costumed interpreters at the site—made more than 1,800 cloth face coverings. At a time when such face coverings were not otherwise widely available, the volunteers provided them to essential park staff and delivered them to front line health care professionals and patients in hospitals and clinics as well as to essential workers at organizations such as Meals on Wheels and food banks.

Cloth face masks sewn by the Bureau of Land Management’s Great Basin Smokejumpers

Based at the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho, these firefighters parachute to remote wildland fires. The sewing skills they master in caring for their gear and mending parachutes found an unexpected additional outlet due to the pandemic. Throughout spring 2020, crew members used any spare moments in their busy schedules to sew face coverings to help prevent virus spread. Assembled and distributed in accordance with CDC guidelines, these cotton masks have parachute cord for ties. Between March and June, the Boise Smokejumpers generously donated more than 8,000 masks to their greater community and to Department of the Interior employees.

Tracy Baetz is the Chief Curator of the U.S. Department of the Interior Museum.

Collecting COVID-19 History at the National Institutes of Health

By Gabrielle Barr and Michele Lyons

Since January 2020, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) has been at the forefront of combatting the COVID-19 pandemic. Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, became the public face of the NIH when he began serving on the White House Coronavirus Task Force. NIH researchers—many of whom changed their research focus during this pandemic—are working hard to develop diagnostic tests, therapeutics, and vaccines; initiate clinical protocols at the NIH Clinical Center; and disseminate the rapidly accumulating knowledge about the virus. This response to the pandemic required laboratory, clinical, animal-care facilities, information technology, and administrative staff to change how and where they worked.

The empty parking lot of NIH’s main administration building in early May 2020. Administrators and many other NIH staff quickly adjusted to telecommuting.

To document this historic endeavor, the Office of NIH History and Stetten Museum (ONHM) began a collaboration with the National Library of Medicine (NLM) and the NIH Records Management Program. These three components formulated the NIH COVID-19 Collecting Plan, which has outlined the types of material sought, the responsible collecting units, and the final repositories. The types of materials include objects, photographs, websites, articles, news releases, video clips, social media, signage, emails, public correspondence, and manuscripts. Although the emails of senior officials are automatically routed to the National Archives and Records Administration, other types of material require active collecting. The NLM, whose collecting mandate is broader than solely the activities of NIH, is crawling thousands of relevant web sites as well as securing digital artworks. The ONHM is relying on its staff of two—one of whom joined the office via telecommuting in April—and its volunteers to document the NIH’s role in the research and clinical realms, the daily challenges of managing an agency of over 30,000 people during a pandemic, and NIH’s image in popular culture.

We have been using BOX, an NIH-approved application, as a place to store and organize files. BOX has also been a helpful tool for tracking incoming submissions and for planning for the next stages of documentation including conducting oral histories and acquiring objects currently being used by NIH staff as part of their jobs. Guides and the application of metadata are already being created by ONHM to contend with the quantity of materials and in an effort to make resources available as soon as possible.

The loading dock door of NIH’s Building 2 sports one of the many signs on campus reminding people to maintain physical distance. A digital version of the sign has been added to the NIH COVID-19 Collection.

To capture the experiences of all NIH employees, contractors, trainees, and volunteers who would not necessarily be part of the official record, ONHM launched the website “Behind the Mask: Real Stories from NIH Staff During the COVID-19 Pandemic” in May 2020. This project seeks reflections as well as documents, photographs, and other media that help narrate NIH staff stories. ONHM has promoted the venture in a variety of ways including having the project webpage and flyer translated into Spanish for people who do not speak English as their first language. Submissions have included photos of the NIH Clinical Center ICU staff, an account of the challenges of creating new procedures for procurement officials who are teleworking, and a video about one person’s experiences at home with young children.

This prayer candle featuring Dr. Anthony Fauci was donated to the NIH Stetten Museum collection as one of several examples of popular culture’s take on NIH and the pandemic.

As the weeks have progressed, we have contacted more NIH representatives to assist with collecting. These include representatives from the Office of Facilities Management, the public affairs office of the Rocky Mountain Laboratory (located in Hamilton, Montana), and representatives from NIH publications. The NIH COVID-19 Collecting Plan has been presented to the scientific directors of all institutes and centers (ICs). In the coming weeks, the collecting team will be approaching representatives from the IC communications offices to aid with collecting, planning for oral histories, and promoting “Behind the Mask.”

This pandemic is the first to occur in a digital world. Even though the amount of information is daunting, we will not learn any lessons without a conscious and conscientious collection of our part of this story.

Gabrielle Barr is the Archivist and Michele Lyons is the Associate Director and Curator of the Office of NIH History and Stetten Museum.

COVID-19 Changes Work Processes and Priorities

By Mattea V. Sanders

In March 2020, I had just completed my 2019 Annual Command History and was preparing for three upcoming conferences. Like so many others, these plans in addition to the rest of my typical daily schedule evaporated in a matter of a couple of weeks. Instead, I spent the months of March, April, and May entirely differently than planned.

I began my position with the U.S. Air Force in May 2019. In the first year, I worked to learn the mission of my unit and the different facets of being a Wing Historian. I worked to support my unit whether through processing emblems, providing historical color for commanders’ speeches, or designing small historical exhibits for conference rooms and offices. I had yet to really demonstrate the usefulness of history within the decision and policy making realm of the unit.

In a recent end of command interview, a commander within my unit reflected that there was no playbook when it came to how the Air Force would respond to a pandemic on as large a scale as COVID-19. As unit historians we are trained to use the lessons learned in the past to help support our current commanders. While this was successful on an enterprise level utilizing the military’s response to the 1918 and 1968 pandemics, it was harder on a unit level. I could not offer background to the 1st Helicopter Squadron how to continue their mission in the face of a pandemic based on information from 1918. I was heartened that the lack of information did not prevent commanders from seeing the importance of the History Office but instead gave them motivation to double down on preserving lessons learned from this crisis for future decision makers.

Another facet of this pandemic that enhanced my role as a Unit Historian was the constantly changing guidance, information, and data from both Public Health experts, the Department of Defense, and the U.S. Air Force. This created a need in my unit for up to date tracking and maintaining of a chronology, a database of documents, and an analysis of the unit’s response to the crisis as it changed day to day. The need became even greater in June when my unit had a change of command and the new commander needed immediate historic information to be able to continue previous policy and establish new guidance.

COVID-19 altered the way I conduct my work, it meant convincing unit leadership that I needed to be on conference calls just as much as I previously needed to be in a physical room. It meant moving oral histories to virtual formats and altering deadlines for work unable to be completed outside of a secure environment or without access to an archive. However, I believe that COVID-19 created opportunities for Federal Historians, and I look forward to trading stories in the future about how the crisis altered your work.

Mattea V. Sanders is a U.S. Air Force historian for the 316th Wing at Joint Base Andrews.

National Library of Medicine

Abstract: Since January 30, 2020, when the World Health Organization declared the SARS CoV-2 disease (COVID-19) to be a public health emergency of international concern, the National Library of Medicine’s (NLM’s) Web Collecting and Archiving Working Group has been collecting a broad range of web-based content about the emerging pandemic for preservation in an Internet archive. Like NLM’s other Global Health Events web collections, this content will have enduring value as a multifaceted historical record for future study and understanding of this event. This article describes the scope of the COVID-19 project; some of the content captured from websites, blogs, and social media; collecting criteria and methods; and related COVID-19 collecting efforts by other groups. The growing collection—2,500 items as of June 30, 2020—chronicles the many facets of the pandemic: epidemiology; vaccine and drug research; disease control measures and resistance to them; effects of the pandemic on health care institutions and workers, education, commerce, and many aspects of social life; effects for especially vulnerable groups; role of health disparities in infection and mortality; and recognition of racism as a public health emergency.

The National Security Agency’s Center for Cryptologic History Documents COVID-19 Response

By Cory M. Pfarr

At the beginning of March 2020, the National Security Agency’s (NSA) Center for Cryptologic History (CCH) was reading the tea leaves. On March 12, Maryland Governor Larry Hogan closed public schools, and on March 13, President Donald J. Trump declared a national health emergency due to serious health and safety concerns over the emergent novel coronavirus (COVID-19). And so, first thing the following week, on Monday, March 13, the Chief of CCH, John A. Tokar, its Technical Director and NSA Historian, Dr. David A. Hatch, and CCH Historian, Cory M. Pfarr, sat around a large wooden table at the back of the office, where large shelves-full of cryptologic history books loom in the immediate background. “We obviously don’t know how long this is going to last,” Tokar admitted, “But I want to be sure we’re capturing at least some of the major points of NSA’s COVID response.” Of course, looking back now, in March no one had any idea the effects of COVID-19 would persist throughout the entirety of 2020 and very likely into at least some part of 2021.

Since that prescient mid-March meeting, NSA’s CCH set about fully documenting the Agency’s response to COVID-19. The office immediately began to compile a detailed timeline of major COVID-19 response-related events at NSA, pulling copious information and insight from official Agency communications, NSA leadership’s virtual all-calls, and from the workforce’s response to events on Agency social media sites. This comprehensive timeline now stretches back to January 29, 2020. CCH also reached out to US Cyber Command, which shares spaces and top-level leadership with NSA, for it was clear that the two organizations would weather the pandemic together. Their respective history functions collaborated throughout the crisis and response.

In April, CCH was afforded an oral history interview with the dual-hatted General (GEN) Paul M. Nakasone (USA), Commander, USCYBERCOM, and Director, NSA to discuss the Agency and the Command’s response to the virus outbreak. Most significantly, for purposes of CCH’s documentation of the crisis event, GEN Nakasone outlined his charge for the history office in the foreseeable future. “I think when you’re all done and you’ve collected all these things,” referring to records on the Agency’s response to COVID-19, he believed CCH could articulate “what the Command and the Agency did that was effective…. These are the areas that they struggled with. And these are the recommendations for the next Commander and Director when he faces something similar.” GEN Nakasone further disclosed his belief that a study on the response to COVID-19 would very likely prove to be of great help to future Agency and Command leaders:

I suspect that in our crisis in the future, there’s some pretty common touch points that a commander and future director are going to need to look at. In the second week of March [2020], I didn’t have enough time to read 20 pages of documents to find key pieces. It would have been really helpful to say, “Hey, this is what we learned and this is what you should try to leverage from our experiences.”

Pausing briefly, GEN Nakasone finished his thought with a degree of humor: “I hope…that it’ll [referring to documentation of the event] gather a lot of dust and with many other things in our archives may not be touched. But nonetheless, just in case, right?”

With a clear mandate from GEN Nakasone, CCH set about in earnest to not only continue, but expand its documentation efforts since April. Throughout the remainder of 2020, CCH conducted numerous oral history interviews of key players at the Agency and the Command, to include members of NSA’s and USCYBERCOM’s COVID Event Teams, along with personnel from NSA’s Offices of Health, Environmental & Safety Services, Human Resources, Installations & Logistics, and many others. Coupled with these oral histories, CCH has partnered with Dr. Michael Warner, the Command Historian for USCYBERCOM, to compose interim histories of the Agency’s and the Command’s collective response to COVID-19, to include a short executive summary and a lengthier 20-page summary. A more comprehensive history is also in the works, which, considering the pandemic’s ongoing state, will likely be years in the making. As with the already-completed summaries, this longer history will undoubtedly draw heavily upon CCH’s documented timeline of events and likely, by that time, dozens of oral history interviews of key players. CCH fully considers its documentation of NSA’s and USCYBERCOM’s COVID-19 response an important exercise in applied history that will serve to inform future generations of Agency and Command leaders when faced with a similar crisis event.

Cory M. Pfarr is a historian at the National Security Agency’s Center for Cryptologic History.


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