The coronavirus could affect the accuracy of the 2020 census - and that could decide who gets a vaccine

The coronavirus could affect the accuracy of the 2020 census - and that could decide who gets a vaccine

Scientists across the world are racing to develop a coronavirus vaccine.


But once a vaccine is developed and approved, who has access to it could depend on the results of the 2020 census.

That's because US government agencies look at census data to figure out how to allocate resources. If the population of a community is undercounted, it might not get the volume of coronavirus vaccine it needs, said Rob Santos, chief methodologist at the Urban Institute.

"If in a year or two years from now, we finally have vaccines, the first thing that the public health folks are going to do is they're going to look at the census counts by neighborhood and say, where do we push out vaccines?" Santos told Business Insider Today.

"If people don't participate, then they're at risk of getting less vaccines than they should have gotten."


It's a scenario that Census Bureau spokesman Michael Cook has hinted at in the past.

"An accurate 2020 census does bode well for times when emergency preparedness or first responders need that information," Cook said. "Looking at the health industry and everything that's happening with COVID-19, the official statistics of the United States definitely will be used and come into play."

The census has been underway since the beginning of March, and can be filled out online.

Experts fear that because of the coronavirus, getting an accurate count of the US population by the December 31 deadline will be harder, with more than 75% of Americans on some form of lockdown.

Historically, minority groups such as African-Americans, Latinos, people on tribal lands, the homeless, and rural populations have been the hardest to count," said director of national census program NALEO Educational Fund, Lizette Escobedo.


"One, they have very limited access to information around the census and around most civic engagement issues," Escobedo said. "There are language barriers. And with that comes barriers to access. I think another piece is there is a huge distrust for the government."

That is why the Census Bureau usually sends field workers to collect data but during the pandemic, it has suspended all field operations until after April 15 as it tries to figure out how to protect the army of door-knockers from COVID-19.

Instead, the agency is urging folks to fill out the form online or over the phone.

But despite the challenges presented by the coronavirus, census officials say there is not much flexibility to extend the deadline, since the US Constitution mandates a census every 10 years.

"As a federal agency, we're obligated to conduct the census per the census law," Cook, the Census Bureau spokesman, said. "So we're trying to ensure that the census is continuing because we have to conduct the census, but that when and where possible, we're making adaptations and modifications to all of our operations to ensure the safety of the public and our staff because we, just like everyone else, we're practicing social distancing, and we're ensuring we can lessen the spread of COVID-19."


Do you have a personal experience with the coronavirus you'd like to share? Or a tip on how your town or community is handling the pandemic? Please email and tell us your story.

And get the latest coronavirus analysis and research from Business Insider Intelligence on how COVID-19 is impacting businesses.