Census Bureau Scrambles To Protect 2020 Count From Major Impacts Of COVID-19

UNITED STATES - MARCH 13: Residents of the Unired States began receiving their 2020 U.S. Census letters in the mail this week. (Photo By Bill Clark/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images)
March 16, 2020 11:22 a.m.
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A pandemic that stands to infect thousands of Americans could not come at a worse time for the 2020 census.

Around the same time that many Americans received mailers from the Census Bureau instructing them how to respond to the survey, they also are hearing pleas from public health officials that they avoid as much social contact as possible, putting in jeopardy the Census Bureau’s ability to do outreach to hard-to-count communities.

While millions of Americans will opt to respond online — and, according to the Bureau, 5 million as of Sunday had — getting an accurate enumeration of the people who are unlikely to use that or other methods to participate in the survey looks even more at risk given the current outbreak.

Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross acknowledged over the weekend that the deadline for completing the collection of decennial census responses, July 31, may need to be changed.

Already, local officials in areas hardest hit by the COVID-19 virus are stressing that such an extension must be treated as a real option, as they fret about how an inaccurate count could skew federal funding and political power away from their constituents.

“This is going to be a very, very complex matter and we have to see on the federal level if there will be any consideration of altering the census, delaying it, extending it,” New York Mayor Bill deBlasio said Thursday. “But my fear right now is that there will not be any change.”

The pandemic has raised serious questions about the in-person operations the Census Bureau has planned. Those include its “non-response follow up” operation, known as NRFU, wherein in-person enumerators go door to door to get collect information from households that have failed to respond to the survey on their own.

In a statement Saturday, Ross stressed the ability to respond to the survey online, on the phone, via the mail, “all without having to meet a census taker.”

“[T]here will be no need for census takers to knock on your door” if you respond using one of those methods, Ross said, while touting the “$2 billion dollar contingency budget for circumstances like the COVID-19 outbreak.”

“Currently, the planned completion date is July 31 — but that can and will be adjusted if necessary as the situation dictates in order to achieve a complete and accurate count,” Ross’ statement later added.

The Census Bureau has already made some adjustments to its plans in its scramble to mitigate any damage the COVID-19 fallout does to the count. Those adjustments included its plans for early in-person enumeration of residences near colleges, as well as how it will collect information from homeless shelters, soup kitchens and mobile food vans.

The Census Bureau has reiterated in its messaging that college students should be counted at the place where they reside for school, rather than the family homes they may have retreated to for the outbreak.

More broadly the Census Bureau has been in contact with group housing facilities — including nursing homes and prison — to urge the facilities to respond to the survey online, or on forms that Census Bureau staffers can pick up, to minimize the amount of in-person contact enumerators need to have with these facilities.

Additionally, the launch of certain in-person operations, such as a national kick off event in Atlanta scheduled Monday, have been postponed.

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