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Coronavirus In Ohio: Officials Confront New Challenges Of 2020 Census

A Census 2020 form is seen Tuesday, Jan. 21, 2020, in Toksook Bay, Alaska.
Gregory Bull
Associated Press
A Census 2020 form is seen Tuesday, Jan. 21, 2020, in Toksook Bay, Alaska.

April 1 is Census Day - which is not so much a deadline but a check-in. If someone fills out their 2020 Census form after this date, they respond with where they were living on April 1.

The once-a-decade headcount of every person living in the U.S. helps determine political representation in Congress and local power in the state legislature. It also guides distribution of some $1.5 trillion a year in federal funding for Medicare, Medicaid and other services.

But while census officials continue to urge people to respond via website or phone, the coronavirus pandemic has thrown a wrench in outreach efforts.

Doug Murray, director of community affairs at the Mayor’s Office, is leading Columbus Counts, the census effort here in the city. Murray says Columbus is at about 30% participation rate so far, a bit low for this time in the census process

“The entire country is a little bit behind the 2010 census, which was our last census, and that is most likely because of the coronavirus pandemic," Murray says. "However, we are making changes to adapt to the virus, and the census bureau has also extended the timeline into August."

Murray says that will allow them to pick up in-person outreach again, which was slated for the next few months. The U.S. Census Bureau has suspended its own field operations until April 15 due to concerns about the pandemic.

“Right now was really the key part of our timeline when we were going to do robust community engagement, boots on the ground,” Murray said.

That included plans to go to colleges, senior centers, churches and festivals where critical masses of people gathered. Now, with a stay-at-home order that could persist well into late spring, Murray’s team has switched gears.

“We are doing a robust social media campaign, we’re on Radio 1 on different radio stations," he said. "A lot of our partners as well have adjusted their strategies."

He mentions efforts to send census books to pick-up locations where Columbus City Schools distribute meals for children, and to Mid-Ohio Foodbank sites.

Murray’s holding out hope that these efforts, plus in-person outreach after the pandemic, will mean the final count is still accurate.

“We will come out on the other side of this thing," Murray said. "We can re-engage on the census and really make up for some lost ground.”

You can complete the 2020 Census online right now at My2020Census.gov, by phone, or by mail.

Clare Roth was former All Things Considered Host for 89.7 NPR News. She joined WOSU in February of 2017. After attending the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University, she returned to her native Iowa as a producer for Iowa Public Radio.