A pandemic, an election and the census: What will data tell us about 2020?

December 30, 2020 / By Amanda Steffon

What can be said about 2020 except what a year! So much has happened in just twelve months. While none of us will desire to return to this time, we are all forever changed by it. 2020 is not just a date stamp in history; it marks the creation of history – the lives lost, livelihoods destroyed, overcrowded hospitals, empty schools and churches, division and anger, protests and masked faces as we keep physical, emotional, and even political distance between us. It can almost feel like the human race is losing. 2020 has been a monumental and tragic year, yet positive aspects have emerged, one of which surrounds us every day and that we often take for granted: 2020 has been the year of DATA.

It is rare to open a web browser, turn on a news station or read an article that doesn’t mention data, new and changing statistics, rates and numbers, and more. Let’s look back at this year, focusing on events that only happen every so often (and hardly ever simultaneously).

  • A pandemic of this scale only happens every 100 years
  • The U.S. Census only happens every 10 years
  • Presidential elections only occur every 4 years

All three occurred in 2020! Everywhere we turn, data is gathered, distributed, shared and reported. Data on infection rates broken down by demographics, spread, curve, hospitalizations, symptomatic versus asymptomatic people, number of kids in school and those distance learning, COVID-19 dashboards, hospital capacity, number of test kits, percentage of positivity, the effectiveness of treatment, record rates of unemployment, homes lost to fires and hurricanes, displaced and homeless percentages, eviction numbers, food bank access, voter turnout, and the list goes on. Some data gathered this year shows that we have made historical strides in science and politics, but other conclusions are difficult to face. In 2020, politics, census data and the pandemic are intertwined. It’s nearly impossible to evaluate one without considering the others. The pandemic has overshadowed everything this year and changed the way we gather data and what data we need. Our politics are influenced by the pandemic, and vice versa, and the U.S. census is incorporating the other two events just by occurring at the same time.

The Pandemic

We have seen the burden the pandemic is placing on our health care system. With census data helping to determine where hospital and clinic expansions and closures are needed, it is apparent that we were not ready for this year. Being unprepared for what was to come led to overcrowded hospitals, rural areas without access to adequate medical care, and shortages of medical staff and treatment options. Unfortunately, 2020 politics impacted public health. Debates occurred on how health care resources would be distributed, which states would receive support, how the federal stockpile of personal protective equipment (PPE) would be managed, how the vaccine would be distributed, etc. The data gathered this year has put a spotlight on considerable gaps in our public health systems, some of which are sobering. As of the date of this blog post, over 330,000 lives have been lost to COVID-19 in the U.S. alone, the most tragic number recorded through data collection and analysis in 2020. 

The U.S. Census

The U.S. Census was authorized by Congress in 1790. 2020 marks the 24th time it has been conducted. The data collected from the census will impact many aspects of our lives over the next 10 years as the census tells us “who we are, where we live and so much more” (2020census.gov). Lawmakers, government agencies, and community service providers, for example, use census data to determine how to allocate community services such as where public schools are needed based on shifts in population, the number of teachers necessary for those schools and appropriate funding.

A year like 2020 highlights the need for widely available resources to operate new teaching platforms beyond traditional in-person learning, and the need for additional food programs for school-aged children. Census data allows business owners to make decisions about opening new businesses, expanding locations of existing businesses or closure of businesses. Data gathered from the U.S. Census directly impacts the apportionment of the 435 congressional seats and helps determine the distribution of nearly $900 billion for federally funded programs (Medicaid, Medicare, food stamps, Section 8 housing vouchers, etc.) Census data also is used in determining federal policies that directly impact each state’s health care, schools, businesses, as well as response to natural disasters.

The Election

Since November 3, data on federal and state elections has been disseminated. Broken down by demographics, data was collected on the number of voters that cast a ballot, the number of people registered to vote, the method they used to cast their vote, and the candidates they chose. No matter which side of the political aisle one favors, the data tells us the pandemic response and the economy were motivating forces in how people chose to vote. Concerns about safety and maintaining social distancing influenced many people to vote by mail (new to many states that had to quickly adapt to changing processes). 2020 is also made history in achieving record voter turnout.

The pandemic, the census and the 2020 election provided unprecedented opportunities for data collection and analysis. The knowledge and insights we gain from this data will impact us for years to come. Based on data collected during the 1918-1920 flu pandemic, historians tell us this country saw similar political divides, different beliefs about the virus, economic burdens, school closures, prohibited gatherings and challenges in conducting the 1920 census. Today, increased knowledge and advanced technology make it easier to gather and aggregate data on the pandemic, the election and the census. We are better equipped to evaluate the year 2020 and must make use of this data if we are to truly move forward and not let history repeat itself. As we ring in a new year and welcome the new vaccinations, I will not be sad when 2020 is officially history.

Amanda Steffon, is a project manager for the 3M Healthcare Data Dictionary team.