The US census has built-in resistance to coronavirus

Count is crucial
Count is crucial
Image: Reuters/Andrew Kelly
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

The 2020 US census should be just fine despite the coronavirus. The count is designed so there are multiple ways to respond without ever coming face-to-face with a human and risking infection.

There’s been some online chatter on Reddit and Twitter about the virus’s impact on the census count, but generally those involved in census work are not raising alarm—and caution against doing so.

“It’s certainly something on our radar,” said Stephanie Reid, director of Philly Counts, Philadelphia’s official get-out-the-count effort, but, she added, “I wouldn’t use the term ‘worried.’”

The vast majority of people don’t have to talk to a census enumerator in person. The US Census Bureau has been making a big push for people to respond online, a first such effort on this scale. People can also answer by phone or with a paper form received in the mail.

With few exceptions, census-takers knock on doors only after a household has not responded online, by phone, or through the mail-in form. And the door-knocking won’t start until May.

If people are concerned about the virus, “that could be another reason to respond on your own, during the first phase of the census,” said Terri Ann Lowenthal, a former staff director of the US House of Representatives’ census oversight sub-committee.

In 2010, 76% of households mailed in their responses on their own. In a 2018 test the Census Bureau conducted in Rhode Island, 52% of households responded, and the bureau predicts census tracts—areas designated by the agency to analyze populations—will self-respond at a rate of 60.5% nationally.

These rates are relatively low because the Census has several broader trends going against it—declining trust in institutions and the government, survey fatigue, and the political climate surrounding immigration, with immigrants fearing their answers could be used against them (which is not the case).

Reid said people will get multiple reminders to participate in the census, including as many as five physical mailers. Get-out-the-count groups across the country have been mobilizing to inform communities about the importance of answering census questions. Reid said that in Philadelphia, they are currently seeing an increased interest in raising census awareness.

There are other safeguards to boost the count as well.

The bureau has printed extra physical copies of the census form, NPR reported. “This would avoid the sharing of smart tablets and devices, laptops. etc, which would prevent the spread of germs,” said Anita Banerji of Illinois-based nonprofit Forefront, which does census outreach.  “If the virus grows worse across the country and the State of Illinois, the paper copy that is mailed out between April 8  and April 16 would be the best route to achieve the most accurate count.”

The census bureau is also working on a coronavirus contingency plan.

“The safety of the American public and our employees is job one. We are working with national health authorities, including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention [CDC], the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, and the President’s Task Force, as well as state and local health departments to ensure all of their guidance is incorporated into our operations,” the head of the bureau, Steven Dillingham, said in a statement. “Operations for the 2020 Census and our ongoing household surveys have procedures built in that specifically anticipate epidemics and pandemics, and we will continue to work with the relevant authorities to keep those up to date.”

The Census declined to respond to a question asking to describe these procedures. The CDC did not respond to a request for comment. In Seattle and King County, Washington, where an early outbreak was detected, public health officials declined to comment, as did California census officials, who directed Quartz to Dillingham’s statement.

Marco Antonio Martinez, head of Casa Latina, an immigrants rights group that is part of Seattle’s census task force, said that they already have concerns “about the resistance to participate in the Hispanic population because of the doubts and fear of sharing personal data with ICE.” The group is organizing an informational event on Covid-19 in order to reduce fears and encourage the Hispanic population to participate. 

Jose Bayona, a New York City Hall spokesperson said that in New York, the census will be taken online or via phone for the first eight weeks, while 20% of the city’s residents will get a paper form from the federal census bureau.

The Brooklyn Public Library, a hub for census outreach, and a place where people are able to use the free internet connection to fill out their census questionnaire, said it is following its protocol for flu season.

“We’re washing surfaces with a disinfectant that’s EPA registered, we do extra cleaning, and we’ll extend that for handles, tables, chairs all areas that are considered high touch,” said spokesperson Fritzi Bodenheimer, adding that libraries would continue that protocol for as long as coronavirus remains a health concern.

Some experts do worry about the virus’ effect, but more in terms of the public’s fears rather than the disease itself, CityLab and local New York publication The City reported. An informational session in the city has been canceled due to apprehension about a recent diagnosis in the state. There are also some concerns about recruiting workers for the effort.

But a full census count is important precisely because of such situations.

The census is leveraged to inform a vast array of decisions, such as infrastructure plans, funding allocations, and even how to address public health threats like the coronavirus.

“Census data are central to emergency planning and preparedness and disaster response and recovery, including responses to public health crises and recovery,” said Lowenthal. “This particular emerging health crisis is another reason why an accurate census is so important.”

Hanna Kozlowska is a Quartz investigative reporter. Amanda Glodowski, Luca Powell, and Jake Wasserman are students at the Newmark Graduate School of Journalism at the City University of New York and are part of an investigative reporting class collaborating with Quartz.