“Alone we can do so little; together we can do so much.”

This famous quote by Helen Keller reminds me about the countless people and countless hours that contributed to the site selection, vision, design, construction and plans for the National Bio and Agro-Defense Facility (NBAF) here in Manhattan. It’s nearly impossible to name all the organizations and individuals who participated in these activities. And in times like these, when we’ve all had to face new challenges, new uncertainties and attempt to embrace a new normal, so many people continue to move forward and work together to fulfill the vision of NBAF and make its mission a reality.

One partner that the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) is grateful to have in these uncertain times is the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and the many DHS personnel who are responsible for the construction and commissioning of NBAF. We are excited to continue that partnership well after USDA takes ownership of the facility. Until we found ourselves facing the impact of the current pandemic, DHS has regularly reported they’ve stayed on budget and on schedule with construction. But due to the impacts of COVID-19 on labor and material availability, the DHS Science and Technology Directorate (S&T) is now forecasting a potential two-and-a-half month delay in the completion of NBAF construction. Completion of construction activities was scheduled for December 2020 and completion of facility commissioning by May 2021.

According to Tim Barr, DHS NBAF program manager, it’s the first delay they’ve faced since they established their cost and schedule baseline in the summer of 2014. Barr says current uncertainties limit their ability to provide reliable forecasts for revised milestone dates, so revised dates will not be established without some degree of stabilization of the issues leading to the delay. DHS S&T is currently projecting that any cost associated with the delays can still be covered in the existing $1.25 billion budget.

But even throughout a worldwide pandemic, Barr says it is clear progress continues to be made, especially inside the facility. Much of what is being done now, he says, is related to testing and interior finishes. In fact, the interior finishes have moved along so rapidly that the DHS staff has moved into offices in the facility and out of trailers in the parking lot. On the exterior, visible progress is being made on the water features and landscaping.

As for the USDA NBAF team, our work continues as well. We are maximizing telework to keep our team as safe as possible and taking full advantage of the numerous teleconference platforms available.

Our Safety, Health, and Environmental Management unit is implementing Occupational Safety and Health Administration procedures and coordinating with various groups such as DHS, the Kansas Department of Health and Environment, and the City of Manhattan on environmental processes.

The Laboratory Support Services unit is benchmarking operational procedures with the National Center for Animal Health and the Plum Island Animal Disease Center to implement their best practices within our laboratory operations at NBAF. Our Information Technology unit is working on the servers, networks, infrastructure, systems analyses and software systems that will be needed to keep the facility running and secure. And several other units are hiring, virtually onboarding personnel and building standardized operating procedures so we’re ready to move into the facility when construction is complete.

In honor of Public Service Recognition Week, which was celebrated the first week of May, we would like to thank our USDA NBAF staff, DHS partners and all public service employees for their daily efforts and sacrifices.

The pandemic has made many of us more aware of just how critical our local, state, and federal services and employees are. NBAF’s mission is also critical. It’s easy to forget how important agriculture is in our lives. After all, it adds about $1.05 trillion to our gross domestic product every year — and 11 percent of jobs (about 22 million) have some tie to agriculture. And now, more than ever, we can see the importance of having vital infrastructure to study animal diseases and diseases that can be transmitted from animals to people.

Katie Pawlosky is the director of communications for NBAF.