ROCHESTER, Minn. — U.S. Sens. Amy Klobuchar and Tina Smith on Wednesday, March 4, joined 15 of their colleagues in calling for the U.S. Census Bureau to develop a plan addressing the impact of coronavirus on public participation and census worker safety.

The letter to U.S. Census Bureau Director Steven Dillingham asked for the bureau to brief the Senate no later than March 27 on the status of coronavirus-related census preparations.

"An accurate and comprehensive census is fundamental to our democracy and the well-being of communities across the country," the letter dated March 3 states. "We urge the Census Bureau to be prepared to assess whether public health concerns about novel coronavirus are depressing census response rates, and develop contingency plans for mitigating measures to help ensure a full and accurate population count."

"Both Sen. Klobuchar and I are focused on everything we need to do help control the outbreak of the virus, protect the health and safety of Americans, and how this outbreak is affecting what's happening in the country," said Smith in an interview with Forum News Service.

"We don't really know what's going to happen with the coronavirus and how we'll need to respond to it. In the meantime, we're planning for this extremely important census. We need to be prepared — to hope for the best and plan for the worst in the event census takers would face challenges in going door to door when there's concern over how the virus is spreading through the community."

Beginning March 12 and continuing until March 20, all households will receive a letter from the bureau asking for their participation online, via phone or return mail. Recipients who fail to respond will receive follow-up letters throughout April, and those still uncounted could be visited by a census worker at their door between May and July.

In some homes, getting the occupant to answer the door to strangers can pose a challenge in times of health. The objective is not likely to be made easier with widespread fears of viral contagion.

Additionally, the bureau will require a half million temporary employees to canvass door to door, field workers who may need reassurance about the safety of their health while doing so should coronavirus conditions worsen. During April, census workers are scheduled to visit the homeless, college dorms and senior centers.

"If outbreaks of novel coronavirus occur in the United States," Smith said, "the Census Bureau must be prepared to provide guidance to census-takers on appropriate health and safety precautions and to prepare for challenges in recruitment and retention of census takers in the event of coronavirus outbreaks. ... Sen. Klobuchar and I want to make sure census takers are getting the best information from our public health professionals."

Sen. Tina Smith. Submitted photo.
Sen. Tina Smith. Submitted photo.

When asked about delays in getting coronavirus tests from federal health officials into local departments, Smith said she shared in the chorus of concerns voiced by critics of late.

"I'm very concerned about this," she said. "I think there has been a serious lack of coordinated effort around the federal government, and we can see that clearly around these tests. ...This is a bipartisan concern, that we need to get the tests out and make them easily available for people to get tested."

As required by the U.S. Constitution, a census has been taken every 10 years since 1790. Census data helps determine the number of seats each state holds in Congress and how billions of dollars in funding are distributed to states and local communities every year for services and infrastructure, including health care, jobs, schools, roads and bridges.