How COVID-19 Could Affect The 2020 Census As Workers Prepare For The Count Without leaving home, many people can complete the census online or over the phone. But the spread of COVID-19 is making it harder for the Census Bureau to reach historically undercounted groups.
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Coronavirus Is Making It Even Harder For The Census To Count Every U.S. Resident

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Coronavirus Is Making It Even Harder For The Census To Count Every U.S. Resident

Coronavirus Is Making It Even Harder For The Census To Count Every U.S. Resident

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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The 2020 census is rolling out across the U.S. this week, right in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic. The public health crisis could further complicate the constitutional duty to get an accurate count of the country's population. NPR's Hansi Lo Wang reports.

HANSI LO WANG, BYLINE: The Census Bureau says for now, the safest way to participate in the 2020 census is to fill out a form yourself by late April at, over the phone or on paper.

MICHAEL COOK: All that can be done without having to meet a census taker or have a census taker come to your home.

WANG: Census Bureau spokesperson Michael Cook says that's why the bureau is encouraging households to look for official letters with instructions expected to arrive in the mail starting tomorrow. For now, Cook says, the bureau is monitoring the coronavirus outbreaks 24/7.

COOK: We'll hire additional workers. We'll manage operations out of different offices, or we'll mail additional reminders or questionnaires to areas affected by an outbreak.

WANG: Census outreach workers are conducting meetings over the phone instead of in person. Still, some members of Congress are concerned about how the bureau will manage the hundreds of thousands of census workers it's planning to send out in mid-May to knock on doors.


JOSE SERRANO: People that have been placed - they're all ready to do the work. Are they showing any concern about how the virus might affect?

WANG: During a House hearing yesterday, Representative Jose Serrano, a Democrat from New York, questioned Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, who oversees the Census Bureau.


WILBUR ROSS: Well, we've only begun the mailing a couple of days ago.

WANG: Ross told lawmakers the bureau is concerned but did not go into detail about its preparations.


ROSS: 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.

TINA SMITH: Frankly, it's not enough to just be told that there are contingency plans in place.

WANG: Senator Tina Smith of Minnesota led a group of Senate Democrats in asking the Census Bureau to explain exactly how it's planning to keep census workers and the public safe.

SMITH: This administration has mishandled the coronavirus outbreak in many ways, and we can't just take their word for it.

WANG: People experiencing homelessness are supposed to be counted beginning later this month. Shelters can choose to have a census worker visit their facility to interview residents. But John Thompson, a former Census Bureau director, says the coronavirus could raise two potential challenges.

JOHN THOMPSON: One, workers could be reluctant to go to a place where the homeless receive services. Two, the places could be reluctant to let people in.

WANG: In a new statement, the bureau says it will adapt its plans if situations change at homeless shelters to make sure groups are counted. To count groups who are not staying at shelters, the bureau is also planning to send workers to look for people in parks, under bridges and other outdoor locations. The pool of census workers, though, won't include Kevin Dowd, a retired accountant who lives outside Milford, Pa.

KEVIN DOWD: I'm enjoying my retirement, and I thought that I would help out the census for something to do.

WANG: Dowd says he recently found out he passed a background check, according to documents he received from the Census Bureau. But Dowd decided not to go through with the training sessions because he was worried about getting sick.

DOWD: How many people would be in how big a room? Many people have come back from vacation from places that have more cases.

WANG: If more census job applicants are worried about the coronavirus, that could hurt the bureau's plans to reach households that don't complete the census on their own. Still, former Census Bureau Director John Thompson says he's pleased to hear the bureau's prepared to delay sending out workers to areas where there is an outbreak.

THOMPSON: If they have to delay too long, then they would have to work with the Congress and see if they would pass a new law to extend the deadline for the census.

WANG: Current federal law requires the Census Bureau to produce new state population counts to the president by December 31. Those numbers determine each state's share of congressional seats and federal funding for the next decade.

Hansi Lo Wang, NPR News, New York.

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