‘As big a challenge our country has ever faced’: COVID-19 forces census officials to get creative

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The COVID-19 outbreak has caused many disruptions to normal life. Not exempt from the far-reaching impact of COVID are the state’s census initiatives. 

On a call with census officials across the state, U.S. Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa., outlined the new challenges facing the 2020 census count, calling it “about as big a challenge as our country has ever faced.”

Even with the threat of COVID-19, Casey emphasized the need to get an accurate count. 

“Pennsylvania received $39 billion through federal programs,” Casey said Monday. To make sure Pennsylvania received federal funding relevant to its need, this year’s census will need to be as accurate as possible.

With the federal deadline for individuals to respond now August 14, census groups around the state are getting creative to ensure the message gets out. 

In Philadelphia, Stephanie Reid, executive director at Philly Counts, the city’s effort to support the federal census, said the COVID-19 outbreak has made it difficult to spread the word about the decennial head count because of the cancellation of in-person events and the closings of non-essential businesses and college campuses. 

Reid says her group has  switched gears from word-of-mouth methods to relying on social media, mail distribution and pamphlets in food boxes from area food banks to reach residents. 

Even though college students have gone home, Reid said her group has been in contact with colleges and universities in the Philadelphia -area to ensure students know that they should still be counted at school, where they would otherwise receive and utilize resources.

Reid said  Philly Counts has made slides for professors to include in their virtual lectures about the census count.The advocacy group also has drafted letters home to students, explaining how they can make sure they’re still counted.

In other regions of the state, platforms such as YouTube have served as a good resource for local census outreach. 

Erie County Census Coordinator Michelle Jaggi said “census ambassadors” have been using YouTube videos to answer questions for the public about the census and share updates. 

In Lehigh County, census officials have focused on advertising to spread the message in the wake of the COVID outbreak. 

“We’ve really had to shift our thinking,” Paulette Gilfoil, Lehigh County’s housing coordinator said. 

Gilfoil said the county has begun advertising on Spanish radio stations and locally on Fox, ESPN and other channels. 

Additionally, Gilfoil said county officials have  been able to partner with area nonprofits to help spread the word.

At the state level, the governor’s 2020 Complete Count Commission has spent $2.5 million of its $4 million allowance from the General Assembly on media campaigns such as TV, radio, billboards and social media, advertising the census as something that can be done “while social distancing.”

Casey said that the delayed deadline will help ensure a more accurate count, but added “other steps may be required going forward” depending on how the outbreak progresses over the next few months.

While they are not visiting homes just yet, census enumerators do not currently have personal protective equipment provided to them.

“We’re going to have to take a closer look at this,” Casey said. 

Cassie Miller
A native Pennsylvanian, Cassie Miller worked for various publications across the Midstate before joining the team at the Pennsylvania Capital-Star. In her previous roles, she has covered everything from local sports to the financial services industry. Miller has an extensive background in magazine writing, editing and design. She is a graduate of Penn State University where she served as the campus newspaper’s photo editor. She is currently pursuing her master’s degree in professional journalism at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. In addition to her role at the Capital-Star, Miller enjoys working on her independent zines, Dead Air and Infrared.