The intersection of two recent stories raises some interesting questions about some of the chores awaiting both the federal government and the states this year. As John reported last night, health officials in multiple states are preparing for the spread of the coronavirus into homeless communities in all major American cities. This is a major concern because the homeless tend to be in worse health than the rest of the general population and they mix together in large encampments with little in the way of sanitary conditions or opportunities to frequently wash up. That’s a recipe for disaster in terms of a highly contagious disease.

But at the same time, the Census Bureau just kicked off the 2020 count, sending out millions of forms to Americans across the country. (Associated Press)

The U.S. Census Bureau made a soft launch of the 2020 census website on Monday, making its form available online. On Thursday, the Census Bureau will begin mailing out notices far and wide.

For the bureau, the once-a-decade head count is akin to running a sprint and marathon at the same time. It takes awhile, but there’s plenty of action throughout.

“It is that intense …. counting up to 330 million people in a very diverse, very mobile population, and over 140 million housing units,” Stephen Buckner, a senior Census Bureau executive, said during a recent visit to Miami.

In terms of contagion, the online forms are, of course, a non-issue. Even the ones that are handled through the mail shouldn’t represent much of a problem since most reports thus far indicate that the virus can’t survive more than a couple of days on inanimate objects.

But what about the people who are hired to go out in public and track down those who are more difficult to count or pin down to a specific address? In most of the larger cities, that involves going out into the homeless communities and helping people fill out their forms or at least get a fair approximation of the headcount. As I recall, those tend to be decent-paying jobs, with enumerators earning around 18 dollars per hour, but you’re also not going to get rich doing it.

How many people will they be able to convince to go wandering through homeless encampments if the coronavirus is running wild among them? The people taking these positions as temporary jobs aren’t going to have any sort of Cadillac health insurance plan. The same can be said for illegal aliens, who are, on average, five times more likely to be uninsured than the rest of the population.

Having the coronavirus blowing around out there just as the Census Bureau is preparing to hire as many as 500,000 people to go out and mingle with the public sounds like a massive risk exposure, doesn’t it? And it’s not just the ones who are counting the homeless and the illegal aliens we need to consider. A lot of those enumerators do the “follow-up” visits where they go to the homes of people who failed to send in their forms. All you need is one enumerator who is contagious but not showing symptoms yet to be out on the beat and they could infect literally hundreds of households in a single week.

I certainly hope that somebody at the Census Bureau has already thought of this and is modifying their standard practices. It might be a bit creepy to have someone wearing a surgical mask and Nitron gloves show up at your door with a census form, but the alternative could be much worse this year.