WASHINGTON – As census officials prepare to hire thousands of workers and send them out to count the nation's population, experts and lawmakers worry about the impact of the coronavirus on the agency's workforce, its operations and the accuracy of the count from college campuses to nursing homes.
“There’s no question that the coronavirus crisis has created an unexpected and significant new challenge to conducting a successful census on time in all communities,’’ said Terri Ann Lowenthal, a census expert. “No one knows exactly how this health crisis will affect census operations, but based on what we’ve seen so far in various communities around the country, it’s likely that the Census Bureau will have to modify some of its operations.”
While the 2020 census has begun in remote communities in Alaska, much of the count is about to kickoff as households begin this week to get invitations to respond to the census online or by phone. The spread of the coronavirus comes as census operations are scheduled to reach their peak in upcoming weeks.
Census officials, who said they have a nearly $2 billion contingency fund, have set up a task force to monitor the outbreak and plan to follow guidelines set by health officials to respond and train its workers.
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“We’re very well equipped to have a quick response team,’’ Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross told congressional lawmakers this week. “We’ve done as much as we can to be ready for whatever contingencies come up whether coronavirus, whether weather, whether whatever.’’
Census officials are urging people to respond online when they receive invitations. They’re also working with community partners to conduct more meetings by teleconference instead of in person.
If needed, census officials said, they will move staff from offices in affected areas and mail surveys and reminders to those communities.
Democratic lawmakers, already concerned that some communities, particularly communities of color, may be undercounted, are questioning whether the agency has an effective contingency plan.
Rep. Grace Meng, a Democrat from New York, said she plans to ask Census Bureau Director Steven Dillingham at a House Commerce, Justice and Science subcommittee hearing later this month about the agency's plan to protect census takers.
Meng is part of the TriCaucus, the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus, the Congressional Black Caucus and the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, which has been pushing the census to target communities that have long been under counted.
"There are no do-overs, and a mistake will be a 10-year mistake," Meng said.
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Senate Democrats, led by Tina Smith from Minnesota, wrote a letter last week to the agency asking how it will deal with the coronavirus. The offices are scheduling a meeting.
On Wednesday, Smith said there's already concern about undercounting communities of color, poor people and tribal communities and "then you layer on top of that worries about census takers going to doors.’’
“We’re asking the Census Bureau for their contingency planning on this to make sure that we don’t magnify the under counting in any way because of this virus,” she said.
Ross told lawmakers the bureau has moved to rely mostly on online responses, which don't involve physical contact. He said households can also respond by phone and mail.
“Everybody is obviously concerned,’’ Ross said. “With all the media coverage I don’t think there’s anybody who lacks concern about the potential for it. So we’ll just have to play it by ear. We are ready to make responses and we will deal with the situation as it evolves.”
Census will offer 'multiple ways' for people to respond to 2020 survey
The census is expected to ramp up efforts urging people to respond online, by phone or by mail.
The population survey, which is conducted every 10 years, is key to apportioning congressional districts and determining the distribution of billions in federal funds for schools, infrastructure and health systems.
Civil rights groups and advocates, who have been aggressively pushing for an accurate count of communities of color, say they’re not sure what, if any, impact there might be.
“It’s clear that the opportunity to respond online and over the phone are not going to be affected,’’ said Marc Morial, president of the National Urban League, which is part of a coalition that hosted a recent census town hall conference call. "For now, we are going to be good.”
Experts said the impact may be more evident when census workers starting in mid-May visit households that have not responded.
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The Census Bureau said it has recruited more than 2.6 million applicants and hopes to hire as many as 500,000 workers, many of whom will knock on doors.
“More people might be reluctant to take this kind of job since it involves going door to door and talking with strangers,’’ said Lowenthal, former staff director of the House census oversight subcommittee. “It’s possible that some residents might be reluctant to open their door to what is essentially a stranger.”
Lowenthal said it's more important than ever to promote responding online, by phone or by a paper questionnaire. "That will be the easiest and safest way to make sure your household is counted especially at a time of so much uncertainty,” she said.
Most at risk is the count at group quarters, including college and university housing such as dorms, and nursing homes as well as homeless shelters, Lowenthal said.
The count at group quarters starts April 2 and often starts with colleges. Historically, there are fewer self-responses from group quarters, she said.
More than 100 colleges have already sent students home to ward off the potential spread of the virus on campus.
Lowenthal said the census could also have trouble getting workers to visit nursing homes and some facilities might not want counters to come.
There may also be a challenge later this month counting people who are homeless, Lowenthal said.
Census officials said there are options to respond, including officials at group facilities reporting the count electronically.
”We designed our 2020 operations precisely so we could offer multiple ways to respond,” census officials said in a statement. “We will adapt to make sure we are getting the same population counted another way.”
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Coronavirus: 2020 census faces uncertainty as US confronts pandemic