Recap: Recent OGIS/CDC Webinar on Requests for COVID-19 Records

The COVID-19 pandemic has impacted agency FOIA programs in various ways– some of which we have discussed previously in this space, and others that were addressed in recent Department of Justice Office of Information Policy guidance. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has seen a staggering increase in its FOIA caseload in the past few months, due in large part to requests for COVID-19 records. On May 12, 2020, OGIS hosted a webinar with CDC FOIA leadership to discuss how the agency is responding to COVID-19 requests and provide tips for successful FOIA requests, especially for pandemic-related records. 

While the webinar was targeted to media requesters, it contained useful information for any FOIA requester interested in making a CDC request. A recording of the webinar is available on NARA’s YouTube Channel; the presentation slides and transcript also are available.

During the webinar presentation, Roger Andoh, CDC’s FOIA Director, and Bruno Viana, CDC’s Acting FOIA Officer, reminded attendees that FOIA is a partnership between the requester and the agency. They also offered updates on the state of FOIA at CDC:

  • So far in Fiscal Year (FY) 20, the CDC has received more requests than it received in all of FY 19. The number of requests has increased 100% compared to the same time last fiscal year, and the CDC is on track to receive more requests in FY 20 than any previous year.  
  • At the time of the webinar, the CDC FOIA office had seven full-time staff members processing FOIA requests and three staff members processing requests part-time. CDC was in the process of advertising for four additional staff to support the FOIA office’s mission.
  • CDC maintains both simple and complex queues based on the estimated amount of time and work it will take to respond to the request, the number of program offices that must be searched for responsive records, and the need to consult with other offices or agencies.
  • Since the beginning of the pandemic, CDC FOIA staff has largely searched for responsive records (particularly email records) using e-discovery tools rather than tasking program office staff with the search. This allows personnel in CDC’s program offices to devote their time to the pandemic.  Subject matter experts from the program offices remain on hand to provide background, context, and information on probable location of responsive records.

CDC offered the following tips for FOIA requesters:

  • Submit brief and concise requests in plain language, with a narrow scope.  The more narrow the scope of the request, the greater chance your request will be processed in the faster queue.
  • Because records custodians are not doing the search themselves, the CDC stressed that requesters should provide as much information as possible to assist FOIA staff to conduct the search, and get in the faster queue. 
  • Requests, particularly those for email records, should contain identifying information such as targeted names (sender or recipient, including from or to non-CDC email addresses), dates, keywords, subject, a description or context of the records and boolean operators (and/or/not/near). Provide as much information about the records as possible.
  • Submitting requests through the CDC Public Access Link (PAL) allows FOIA processors to spend more time processing FOIA requests and less time on administrative duties, resulting in faster response times. Although the CDC will still accept requests through more traditional means, doing so can result in delayed responses and requesters are strongly encouraged to use the PAL.
  • The CDC considers two reasons to grant expedited processing: if an imminent threat to the life or physical safety of an individual exists, or if there is an urgency to inform the public concerning actual or alleged Federal Government activity. If the CDC grants the request for expedited processing, it will move the request to the front of the queue, though it may not begin processing that request immediately.  To date, the CDC has granted expedited processing for approximately 161 FOIA requests seeking records related to the pandemic.
  • The CDC is working on proactively posting records related to the pandemic, as well as those records that have been requested at least three times.