Jenny Van Hook headshot in blue sweater
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Decisions about where to build hospitals and how to allocate emergency medical equipment are critical during a pandemic, and driven by a source you might not expect. This week’s episode of the Democracy Works podcast, produced by the McCourtney Institute for Democracy and WPSU, examines the role that Census data plays in public health, and how the Census Bureau is adapting to the COVID-19 pandemic. The episode features an interview with Jennifer Van Hook, Roy C. Buck professor of sociology and demography in the College of the Liberal Arts and a former member of the Census Advisory Board.

“The number of hospital beds available in ICUs or in general are based on a set of plans that are in turn based on the size and the age of the population in the area,” Van Hook said. “How do we know that information? It doesn't just come down from the sky; it is something that's based on the Census.”

An inaccurate Census count, Van Hook said, can lead to unmet need during emergency situations.

“If we don't get those numbers correctly, then we could have a mismatch between the demand and need for those kinds of services, even in the absence of a coronavirus epidemic,” Van Hook said.

The 2020 Census was ramping up just as COVID-19 began to spread throughout the U.S., which has impacted plans for the door-to-door follow up for people who do not complete the Census online or by mail. At a time when there were already apprehensions about online data collection and the bureau's staffing levels, Van Hook said COVID-19 was yet another potential setback for an accurate count.

“Even before all the issues and disruptions, people were already concerned about the Census, and especially about the capacity of the census to encourage people to respond and to self respond so we can get a full count,” she said. “We don't need any more wrenches at this point.”

The 2020 Census can be completed online at

The interview with Van Hook is the third in a series of Democracy Works episodes related to the new coronavirus. Previous episodes include a conversation with Nita Bharti of Penn State’s Center for Infectious Disease Dynamics about the government’s role in public health messaging, and a look at the growing vote by mail movement with Charles Stewart III of the MIT Election Lab.

Listen to the podcast episode at or by searching“Democracy Works” in Apple Podcasts, Spotify or any podcast app.