COVID-19 Records and How Long to Keep Them

[Updated 7/6/2020]: On July 2, 2020, the U.S. Office of Inspector General (OIG) issued guidance requiring that all Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act grant documentation be retained for 5 years. Visit the U.S. Department of the Treasury’s website for more information about CARES funds.

The analysts here at TSLAC have been getting tons of questions about how governments should be handling their COVID-19 records. The influx of these questions is understandable – we are working during extraordinary times. In fact, these may be historic times; COVID-19 records may potentially be used as documentary evidence by future researchers, historians, and citizens. However, we’re here to tell you: don’t panic! Well, at least don’t panic about the records. If you know anything about basic records management, then you already have all the tools you need to manage COVID-19 records.

There are two basic points to keep in mind when it comes to handling COVID-19-related records:

1. Pandemic-Neutral Schedules: Records series and retention periods are based on government functions; most functions that your government performs are already covered on one of our published retention schedules.

2. Disposition Holds: holds should be used to delay destruction of records that still hold value (administrative, legal, fiscal, or historical value).

Let’s go over each of these points in more detail…

1. Pandemic-Neutral Schedules

The first point is that all of the records series on the local retention schedules and state records retention schedule are based on the functions that your local or state government performs. The retention period for each series is based around the general administrative, legal, fiscal, or historical value of the records that those functions tend to produce. Retention is not tied to the system where records are stored, nor is it tied to specific unique events. The beauty of a function-based retention schedule is that it is general enough to apply to all governments and all circumstances.

So that’s all well and good, but how does that help you practically? Right about now, you’re thinking, “Enough with the theory – just tell me how long to keep COVID-19 records!

Just like classifying any other government record, the first question to ask yourself when dealing with COVID-19 records is: What purpose or function does this record serve? Once you answer that, you can classify the record into the correct series.

Here are some common series that COVID-19 records might fall under on the local and the state side…

Situation: Your government has changed its telecommuting policy or operational procedures due to shelter-in-place or quarantine orders.

Series Number & TitleSeries DescriptionRetention Period
Local:
GR1000-38
Policy and Procedure Documentation
Executive orders, directives, manuals, and similar documents that establish and define the policies, procedures, rules, and regulations governing the operations or activities of a local government as a whole or any of its departments, programs, services, or projects. US, expired, or discontinued + 5 years.
State:
1.1.070
Agency Rules, Policies, and Procedures
Manuals, guidelines, administrative rules, or similar records distributed internally for the use of employees or externally to the public or those individuals or entities regulated by an agency that sets out the rules, policies, and procedures that govern an agency’s programs, services, or projects.AC + 3
AC = Completion or termination of program, rules, policies, or procedures.
Arch. Code R/O
State:
1.1.010
Directives
Any document that officially initiates, rescinds, or amends general office procedures. US + 1 year

Situation: Your executive staff sends out regular updates to staff and/or to the public on how policies and projects are affected.

Series Number & TitleSeries DescriptionRetention Period
Local:
GR1000-26a
Correspondence – Administrative
Incoming/outgoing and internal correspondence pertaining to the formulation, planning, implementation, modification, or redefinition of the programs, services, or projects of a local government and the administrative regulations, policies, and procedures that govern them. May also include subject files, which are collections of correspondence, memos and printed materials on various individuals, activities, and topics.4 years
State:
1.1.007
Correspondence – Administrative
Incoming/outgoing and internal correspondence pertaining to the formulation, planning, implementation, interpretation, modification, or redefinition of the programs, services, or projects of an agency and the administrative regulations, policies, and procedures that govern them. 4 years
Arch. Code R/O

Situation: Your department is conducting a daily or weekly video chat to check in with each other.

Series Number & TitleSeries DescriptionRetention Period
Local:
GR1000-32
Minutes (Staff)
Minutes of internal staff meetings.AV
State:
1.1.063
Staff Meeting Minutes and Notes
Minutes or notes, and supporting documentation, taken at internal agency staff meetings. 1 year

Situation: You closed a park, building, or public area to enforce social distancing.

Series Number & TitleSeries DescriptionRetention Period
Local:
PS4025-03b
General and Emergency Orders
Special orders issued by the head of a public safety agency, or deputies possessing requisite authority, declaring emergencies, ordering evacuations, and similar extraordinary directives.3 years
State:
1.1.011
Executive Orders
Any document that initiates, rescinds, or amends a regulation, policy, or procedure that governs the programs, services, or projects of an agency. US + 3
Arch. Code A/I

Situation: You are posting on your social media page about closures, safety tips, local relief resources, hotlines, etc.

Series Number & TitleSeries DescriptionRetention Period
Local:
GR1000-33
Public Relations Records
News, press releases, or any public relations files maintained or issued by an agency. Includes print, electronic, audio, and audiovisual records.2 years
State:
1.1.019
Public Relations Records
News, press releases, or any public relations files maintained or issued by an agency.  Includes print, electronic, audio, and audiovisual records. 2 years
Arch. Code R/O

Situation: You realize you weren’t prepared for this crisis and want to update your disaster recovery plan.

Series Number & TitleSeries DescriptionRetention Period
Local:
GR5750-07
Disaster Preparedness and Recovery Plans
Disaster preparedness, continuity of operations, business continuity, or other plans used to prepare for or respond to emergencies or disasters.US
State:
5.4.013
Disaster Preparedness and Recovery Plans
US

Situation: You are conducting all open meetings virtually or via teleconference. You keep the minutes permanently, but now you have audio or video recordings…

Series Number & TitleSeries DescriptionRetention Period
Local:
GR1000-03e
Minutes
Audiovisual recordings of open meetings for which written minutes are prepared.90 days after approval of minutes by the governing body. 
State:
1.1.060
Meetings, Audio or Videotapes of Open
Audio or videotapes of open meetings of state boards, commissions, committees, and councils. AC + 90 days
AC = Official approval of written minutes of the meeting by the governing body of an agency.

Situation: Your government is planning a new program or service in response to COVID-19 concerns.

Series Number & TitleSeries DescriptionRetention Period
Local:
GR1000-41a
Reports and Studies (Non-Fiscal)
Annual, sub-annual, or irregularly prepared reports, performance audits, or planning studies…

… prepared by order or request of the governing body or considered by the governing body (as reflected in its minutes) or ordered or requested by a state agency or a court.
-OR-
… prepared by order or request of the chief administrative officer.
Permanent
-OR-
5 years
State:
1.1.024
Plans and Planning Records
Plans and records relating to the process of planning new or redefined programs, services, or projects of an agency that are not included in or directly related to other records series in this schedule. AC + 3 years
AC = Decision made to implement or not to implement result of planning process.
Arch. Code R/O

Situation: Your employees are requesting and using sick leave or other emergency leave.

Series Number & TitleSeries DescriptionRetention Period
Local:
GR1050-54b
Leave Records
Requests and authorizations for vacation, compensatory, sick, Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), and other types of authorized leave, and supporting documentation. FE + 5 years for school districts;
FE + 3 years for other governments.
State:
3.4.007
Time Off and/or Sick Leave Requests
FE + 3 years

Situation: Your government is receiving or administering financial grants for COVID-19 relief.

Series Number & TitleSeries DescriptionRetention Period
Local:
GR1025-08
Grant Development and Administrative Records
See sub-series:
GR1025-08a
GR1025-08b
GR1025-08c
GR1025-08d
various
*see note below
State:
4.7.008
Grant Records
This series documents state and federal grant projects participated in or administered by state agencies. It includes grant authorization records, which provide evidence of the award of grants to or by agencies; grant/project financial or performance reports, which are periodic reports of financial activity and/or program performance related to grants received or made by agencies.AC + 3 years
AC = Satisfaction of all Uniform Administrative Requirements for Grants and Cooperative Agreements to State and Local Governments (the Common Rule).
*see note below

*Note: On July 2, 2020, the U.S. Department of the Treasury issued guidance requiring that all Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act grant documentation be retained for 5 years.

Situation: You are a local health department or public health authority implementing quarantine and sanitizing activities.

Series Number & TitleSeries DescriptionRetention Period
Local:
HR4775-26
Quarantine Records
Orders, notifications, warrant copies, and similar records relating to the isolation, quarantine, disinfection, or other control measures applied to persons, animals, objects, structures, and land to halt the introduction, transmission, and spread of communicable disease.3 years after quarantine lifted.

This is not an exhaustive list of the all the types of records your government may be creating or receiving in response to the COVID-19 crisis – but it’s a good place to start. If you need help classifying a specific type of record, please contact your analyst (for local governments and state agencies). We are standing by and happy to help!

2. Disposition Holds

Now you may be thinking, “Okay, I know how to classify my records, but shouldn’t we be keeping these COVID-19 records much longer, maybe even permanently? I mean, they’re pretty important, right?

That is definitely a valid point, and this is where appraisal and disposition holds come into play.

Just like with any other record, some records series require the RMO to evaluate the historical value of the records before destroying them. Many of the series listed in the previous section contain a caution note such as, “Review before disposal; some records may merit PERMANENT retention for historical reasons” (on the local side), or they have an archival code which requires them to be appraised by an archivist before transfer/destruction (on the state side). For COVID-19 records, this is a textbook example of when historical value will need to evaluated by either the RMO or an archivist.

Additionally, just like with any other record, some documents may not be destroyed if they are subject to a legal hold, litigation, public information request, audit, or other claim – even if the retention period has been met (Local Government Code Section 202.022 [local] and Government Code Section 441.187 [state]). RMOs can decide to place an indefinite destruction hold on any COVID-19-related records, until official guidance on retention is published at the federal and state levels. It is also wise to consider that many disaster relief and related grants may require that time spent on COVID-19 matters be tracked and documented. For this reason, it may be prudent to place an indefinite destruction hold on COVID-19 records until all fiscal and legal issues can be safely declared as “resolved.” This can be accomplished, for example, by assigning a unique COVID-19 code to all relevant records.

It is difficult, if not impossible, to appraise the historical significance of COVID-19 records while we are all currently in the midst of the crisis. The simplest approach RMOs can take right now is to classify COVID-19 records according to their function as usual, and consider placing destruction holds on all COVID-19 records until the official course of action becomes clear.

7 thoughts on “COVID-19 Records and How Long to Keep Them

  1. An excellent blog post. I fully agree with this statement “COVID-19 records may potentially be used as documentary evidence by future researchers, historians, and citizens. “. As such I would recommend that records that are clearly related to Covid19 be retained for historical reasons especially the records from upper administration.

  2. I concur with Peter. I was the RMO for Harris County when the County took control of the Ryan White program which dealt with HIV. I put a hold on all Ryan White and related records. After a number of years passed, I had the County Archivist appraise them and accession those that were historically significant and destroyed the others. Many, perhaps most, would have been destroyed if we had strictly followed the Records Control Schedule but now, the Harris County has one of the best collections of HIV records held by a local government.

  3. Working in a private organisation where there is an awareness of a potential future public enquiry and a wish to provide accurate evidential records, even our non-record keeping staff are anxious. I am spending a lot of time reassuring staff that “pandemic-neutral schedules” will already cover a lot of what we need to keep so its great to see some supportive confirmation of this from Erica.

  4. Pingback: Monday CoronaBuzz, April 27, 2020: 34 pointers to new resources, useful stuff, research news, and more. | Business Marketing Journal

  5. Covid 19 records are records of enduring value. they are unique and the future generation would be happy to read such records as they have historical value, fiscal value, social and economical values. Most of these records in my view are Archives and should be preserved for posterity.

  6. Is there anything written in your state’s Records Retention Schedule that deals with records pertaining to sheltering/quarantining individuals at a hotel. Trying to find this information out so that I can help develop a records retention schedule for NJ Department of Health.

  7. Hi Patricia – there is not a single record series that would deal with a project like this on our general records retention schedule, although state agencies in Texas have the option to create a custom record series for a specific type of project like this. The records series that might be used to classify records created during the setup of this program are Executive Orders ([1.1.011] which are retained 3 years after being superseded) or Planning Records ([1.1.024] which should be retained 3 years after the planning process in concluded). These both have archival codes which require archival review of the records before final disposition.
    Some of the records series that might apply to arrangements with the hotel or with citizens staying in the hotel are Waivers of Liability (1.1.078), Contract Administration Files (5.1.001), Security Access Records (5.4.012), etc. Medical records for non-employees are not covered on our general records retention schedule, so research on applicable PHI retention laws and regulations would need to be researched at the federal and state level. I would recommend looking at Texas DSHS’s retention schedule as a model, as their custom series will be more applicable: https://www.tsl.texas.gov/sites/default/files/public/tslac/slrm/state/schedules/537.PDF. For example, DSHS has a record series (10794) specifically for medical records related to quarantine and protective orders.

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