by Julie Lineback

In the early days of the pandemic – when it became apparent that Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) was going to be a large-scale global public health issue – the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) David J. Sencer Museum began to collect items so they wouldn’t be lost to future researchers.

Heather Rodriguez, left, in 2020; Australian man, right, in 1919
Heather Rodriguez, left, in 2020; Australian man, right, in 1919 (from CDC exhibit)

A critical member of this documentation team is University of West Georgia alumna Heather Rodriguez ’17 ’19, who is a contractor with Chickasaw Nation Industries serving as assistant curator of the CDC’s David J. Sencer Museum. Along with museum Director Judy Gantt, Head Curator Louise Shaw and Collections Manager (contractor) Mary Hilpertshauser, the group is in charge of rapid response collecting – the practice of accumulating present-day objects and documentation for future interpretation.

“So much of it is ephemeral,” Rodriguez said of the evanescent nature of the project. “The primary goal is to document the CDC response to the pandemic in communities around the world. The museum is interested in seeing how CDC has responded to this global public health crisis on the community level by collecting items from teams deployed around the world and from the communities in which they work.”

One such team is stationed in the Navajo Nation, an Native American territory spanning Arizona, Utah and New Mexico.

“The Navajo Nation has the highest number of cases of COVID-19 per capita than any other area in the U.S.,” Rodriguez explained. “CDC responders are working with the Navajo Nation Tribal Epidemiology team, and from them, we have collected photographs, newspaper articles, and other documentation regarding the response there.”

Other artifacts such as the evolution of the CDC-developed real-time diagnostic kits, narratives documenting the institute’s serological studies, and digital material chronicling the Advanced Molecular Detection program’s work leading a consortium of public health labs focused on issues surrounding large scale and rapid genomic sequencing of COVID-19 are just a few important pieces that “encapsulate the broad scope of CDC’s scientific work undertaken by CDC during the pandemic,” Rodriguez said.

Heather RodriguezThis isn’t Rodriguez’s first time helping the agency document a pandemic. Rodriguez credits UWG for giving her career a start at the organization during such a critical time in the world’s history. 

“UWG was really my starting point,” she said. “Professors like Dr. Steve Goodson, Dr. Ann McCleary and Dr. Stephanie Chalifoux allowed me to have the kind of academic freedom I really wanted while providing skills and structure. Thanks to West Georgia, I got my dream job before I even left college.”

Graduate students enrolled in UWG’s public history program are required to complete an internship. With firsthand knowledge of Rodriguez’s interest in medical history, then-UWG Center for Public History Co-Director Dr. Julia Brock mentioned her to Sencer curator Shaw.

“Louise was trying to piece together the CDC’s role in influenza prevention and the history of it dating back to 1956 when it was established as a World Health Organization Collaborating Center,” Rodriguez explained. “I began reading and researching as much as I could and piecing together photographs and materials for this exhibit.”

Rodriguez’s work became more focused when she began homing in on the 1918 flu pandemic, which infected 500 million people – about a third of the world's population at the time. That exhibit never had the chance to open before the world was rocked by another pandemic, COVID-19, and is currently on hold.

And although more than a century separates them, Rodriguez understands how people can draw conclusions between the two international health crises.

“One of the things that’s very familiar to people when they look back and they see photographs and hear narratives of the 1918 pandemic is looking at social distancing,” she observed. “The American Public Health Association referred to it back then as ‘breaking the chains of infection’ – they encouraged bans on public gatherings, enforced stricter sanitation in bars and restaurants, and shut off public drinking fountains.”

COVID-19 model, left; haemophilus influenza, right
COVID-19 model, left; haemophilus influenza, right (from CDC exhibit)

But 100 years can make a big difference as well.

“Public health is a lot stronger than it was in 1918,” Rodriguez said. “We’ve had decades of pandemic preparedness.”

Thanks to Rodriguez and the rest of the David J. Sencer CDC Museum team, tomorrow’s historians will have a wealth of information in their hands – from telework and homeschool schedules to photographs of microbiologists sewing cloth masks for their colleagues working in labs.

“To capture these stories and the work of CDC as it happens is so important,” she concluded. “I’m not sure if after the pandemic we would have been able to capture such a story once people resettle into the new normal. We want to present this material to future researchers so they have a better idea of the entire image of CDC during the COVID-19 pandemic.”

  • Heather Rodriguez (David J. Sencer CDC Museum) holds a CDC 2019-nCoV Real-Time RT-PCR Diagnostic Panel test kit developed and distributed by CDC in February 2020 for use by trained laboratory personnel.
  • Jessica Halpin, a microbiologist with the Enteric Diseases Laboratory Branch at the CDC, sews cloth masks for other CDC staff members, including ones who were involved in COVID-19 sample testing. She's made a number of masks for people working in the labs at Atlanta Roybal campus. Photograph by Andrew Huang.
  • Mary Hilpertshauser (David J. Sencer CDC Museum) holds her collection of “Cleared COVID-19” stickers.
  • The Navajo Nation Tribal Epidemiology team and CDC COVID-19 responders in Window Rock, Arizona on the Navajo Nation in April 2020.  The Navajo Nation is grappling with one of the more severe COVID-19 outbreaks in the United States. Photograph by Darlene Tracy.
  • A screen displaying a CDC-developed global health alert at the quarantine station in the Hartsfield-Jackson airport in Atlanta.
  • In February 2020, a CDC team worked with their colleagues in Atlanta to send back hundreds of Americans who were quarantined on the Diamond Princess cruise ship. The language skills of two Japanese natives on the CDC team – Miwako Kobayashi, M.D., and Mitsuru Toda, Ph.D. – were crucial to technical meetings with government officials.
  • CDC 2019-nCoV Real-Time RT-PCR Diagnostic Panel test kit developed and distributed by CDC in February 2020 for use by trained laboratory personnel.
  • A 3D model of the now famous CDC-created image of the SARS-CoV-2 virus. Alissa Eckert and Dan Higgins, illustrators at CDC, were tasked with designing a model of the virus that would grab the public's attention.
  • Major Thomas B. Dunne injects an influenza vaccine by Press-o-Jet, 1958.
  • Lieutenant Marcella B. Brychta is given the first influenza vaccine in the India-Burma Theater during World War II.
  • A nurse works alone in a hospital ward at Wilbur Wright Aviation Field, Ohio, on Feb. 21, 1919.
  • Australian wearing medical protective gear during the influenza pandemic, 1919.
  • Australian wearing medical protective gear during the influenza pandemic, 1919.
  • Microscope slide with Pfeiffer’s bacillus (Haemophilus influenzae) in sputum, circa World War I. Pfeiffer’s bacillus was incorrectly believed to be the microorganism behind influenza infections in 1918. The influenza virus was not discovered until 1933.
Posted on May 28, 2020