COVID-19 scrambles census plan, leaders stress online option

Officials concerned about impact on participation

Alex Wong/Getty Images

Michigan kicked off the largest census campaign in state history with bipartisan leaders in February, allocating a record $16 million for outreach and preparation and setting a goal for 82% participation this year. But now the COVID-19 outbreak and a number of statewide closures ordered by the governor might put a wrench in that plan.

There are now 53 positive cases in Michigan of COVID-19, a disease caused by a new coronavirus, as of this story’s publication, although health officials believe that number is much higher. State officials are urging Michiganders to limit their in-person interactions and stay at least six feet apart.

Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist talks about the importance of the census, Feb. 26, 2020 | Allison Donahue

Attorney General spokesperson Ryan Jarvi says that a low or incomplete census count has been a concern since before the COVID-19 outbreak in Michigan, but now federal funding that results from the census count could be even more essential. 

Given the current state of emergency in place as we all work together to slow the spread of COVID-19, it’s important to know that the census is also vital in determining the amount of funding our state receives to support our public health and disease prevention,” Jarvi said. 

The U.S. census determines how much federal funding Michigan receives for public safety, health care, education, roads and infrastructure through 2030. 

Kerry Ebersole Singh, the director of the Michigan 2020 Statewide Census campaign, said that federal tax dollars based on the census count notably support Medicaid, Medicare, State Children’s Health Insurance Program (SCHIP) and health care centers around the state.

For every person that goes uncounted, the state could lose $1,800 of federal funds each year, according to the Council of Michigan Foundations.

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Online option

For the first time ever, the U.S. Census Bureau is offering the public the opportunity to take the survey online, but officials are more concerned about outreach through traditional door-to-door and in-person methods during the COVID-19 outbreak. 

The census has been around for 230 years. In efforts to limit the spread of COVID-19, many businesses and agencies have been forced to temporarily close or change the way they access the public — causing an impact that they couldn’t have expected.

The Census Bureau is following the guidance of federal, state and local health authorities — and has established a COVID-19 task force to “continuously monitor the situation and update our Pandemic Addendum to the Census Bureau Continuity of Operations Plan,” a Wednesday news release from the bureau states. 

“We are adjusting some operations as outlined below with two key principles in mind: protecting the health and safety of our staff and the public and fulfilling our statutory requirement to deliver the 2020 Census counts to the President on schedule,” the release continues.

Census leaders are encouraging the public to limit contact between door-to-door census takers and families by responding online, over the phone or by mail by April 30.

The toll-free number to participate in the census over the phone in English is 844-330-2020. The phone numbers to take the census in other languages are available here

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Worker impact?

For census workers, the impact that COVID-19 will have on the census is still uncertain.

Kerry Ebersole Singh | Twitter

Ebersole Singh said the Michigan Census Bureau is currently unsure how the pandemic will affect the number of census workers, whether door-to-door efforts will be limited or if there is an estimate on how the number of people taking the census could be affected.

To encourage social distancing, the Michigan 2020 Census “Be Counted” campaign has suspended all planned public gatherings, like town hall events, and will move to other alternatives, such as live-streaming on social media, Ebersole said. 

The city of Detroit had more than 90 census events scheduled in March and April that have since been canceled. Detroit 2020 Census Campaign but the Executive Director Victoria Kovari said they’re being flexible. 

“We’re still planning a really robust outreach strategy, but that’s all going to be dependent on what the trajectory of this virus is here. But we are flexible and we’re going to be working as hard as ever to contact people via phone, social media and promoting it on billboards,” Kovari said. “So we haven’t given up and we don’t plan to. We’re determined that this is going to be a really good count for the city and we’re determined to make it so.”

College students

College students, who are considered a hard-to-count group because they move around often, will be especially hard to count after several Michigan universities switched to online-only classes and many students returned home.

Michigan State University | Anna Liz Nichols

In order to ensure students are still counted, the bureau is asking universities to remind their students to respond. 

Despite many students leaving campus due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Census Bureau’s residence criteria requires students to be counted at their school address, or wherever they live and sleep most of the time.

In the 2020 Census Group Quarters Advance Contact operation, college and university student housing administrators were asked the preferred method of counting students that live on campus, and 35% of participants chose the drop off and pick up method. 

The Census Bureau is contacting schools now to offer them an opportunity to change their preference to best reach all of their students, in light of the current situation. 

The other methods are response through online or mail-in paper surveys. 

The Early Nonresponse Followup operation, when census takers begin to follow up with college and university students who live in off-campus housing who haven’t responded yet, will be delayed from April 9 to April 23. 

The purpose of this operation is to reach these students before the end of the spring semester when many students will be moving out. 

Other hard-to-count communities 

Reaching people in other shared living facilities, like nursing homes, prisons and other institutional living facilities, could look different this year, too. The bureau has contacted all group quarters administrators that have requested in-person visits and asked them to reconsider the other options, as well. 

Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist II at the Detroit Rescue Mission, Jan. 31, 2019 | Ken Coleman

Another hard-to-count group is the homeless population. 

One way that census workers combat that issue is by interviewing each person served a meal or staying at emergency and transitional shelters, soup kitchens and mobile food vans. Workers plan to do this between March 30 and April 1, but are now offering alternative plans for this, too, to limit contact between workers and the public.

Service providers at these facilities are asked to provide the bureau a paper listing of census response data for each person served at any of these locations instead.

Kovari says the Detroit census team is planning on returning to locations in the city with high homeless populations in May or June to follow up with individuals and make sure they had their census taken.

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The Mobile Questionnaire Assistance program, which offers assistance with responding to the census at events and popular locations, will also be delayed from the original start date on March 30 until April 13. 

“The outbreak of the coronavirus reinforces the critical importance of completing the 2020 Census to support our public health and disease prevention,” says Ebersole Singh. “If we don’t succeed in getting every Michigander possible to complete the 2020 census, the federal funding that should come to Michigan will go instead to Ohio, Wisconsin, Indiana and other states across the nation. We can’t afford to let that happen.”

Allison Donahue
Allison Donahue covers education, women's issues and LGBTQ issues. Previously, she was a suburbs reporter at the St. Cloud Times in St. Cloud, Minn., covering local education and government. As a graduate of Grand Valley State University, she has previous experience as a freelance researcher for USA Today and an intern with WOOD TV-8. When she is away from her desk, she spends her time going to concerts, comedy shows or getting lost on hikes in different places around the world.