TRENTON – In the first 15 months of the pandemic, the start of which happens to nearly coincide with the 2020 Census, the population dropped in eight counties in New Jersey, pushing the state to an overall net loss of nearly 22,000 residents.

Maybe.

The Census Bureau’s yearly population estimates projected that New Jersey’s population in 2020 was pacing more than 400,000 less than the actual count, and whatever bug was in that methodology could persist. On top of that, the pandemic hampered the 2020 count and other Census Bureau programs.

Tim Evans, the research director for New Jersey Future, said he doesn’t distrust the Census Bureau’s methods but that the data should be reviewed cautiously because it’s a COVID-driven aberration. The declines aren’t a cause for alarm just yet because the pandemic scrambled things – but probably not permanently.

“It’s hard to distinguish a trend through this extraordinary bit of noise – which isn’t really noise. I mean, it’s signal,” Evans said. “It’s something that’s really happening, but it’s something temporary that’s obscuring background trends.”

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“They’re accurately capturing what has happened, but what has happened is an anomaly,” he said. “We’re going to back to some sort of equilibrium once this pandemic recedes.”

The state’s estimated population was down by around 22,000 in 15 months. It’s not alone in that decline: Nineteen states and Washington, D.C., shed population since the 2020 Census, led by New York.

Story continues below the chart, and county rankings and details are at the end of the post.

Hudson County’s population was down over 3% between April 1, 2020 and July 1, 2021, according to estimates, the nation’s ninth largest drop among counties with at least 50,000 people. Its decline of almost 22,400 was actually slightly bigger than the state as a whole.

For many of the counties where populations apparently declined, a change that started five years ago may have contributed more than the pandemic itself.

Yearly increases from immigration statewide ere running over 55,000 a year from 2013 to 2017, then plunged late last decade to a rate one-fifth of that, Evans said. In the first 15 months after the Census, it’s estimated to have added 10,800 residents to the state.

“It’s more likely the national immigration policy that’s affecting it, although it is true that I think the pandemic did cause a drop in the number of people moving, trying to come to the United States,” he said.

Evans said the four counties estimated to have had drops exceeding 0.5% – Hudson, Passaic, Essex and Union – are popular destinations for new immigrants.

Perennial leader Ocean County was still the fastest-growing county in the state, up nearly 11,800 or 1.8%. After that, the percent gains were biggest in the unlikely trio of Warren, Sussex and Hunterdon counties – potentially a measurement of people seeking less crowded areas in the work-from-home era.

Deaths outpaced births in more than half the counties in New Jersey in the first 15 months of the pandemic, the estimates show. Evans said over time, those impacts are likely to balance out, as older residents died sooner than they would have if not for the pandemic.

Evans said in past years, the state averaged around 75,000 deaths a year. In the 12 months ending July 1, 2021, the estimates say more than 90,500 died in the state.

“Basically, what COVID has done is it has frontloaded like two- or three-years’ worth of deaths,” Evans said. “So, you see a spike this year and then for the next two or three years, you’re probably going to see fewer than average.”

After the 1918 flu, it took eight years for the number of deaths in New Jersey to surpass their total from before that pandemic.

But this pandemic is far longer than the one a century ago, with the total deaths in January – the pandemic’s 22nd month -- the second highest since it began, according to state Department of Health figures.

The estimates change the population rankings of some New Jersey counties.

Though it is believed to have shrunk by nearly 2,400 people, Middlesex County now ranks as the state’s second most-populous county, ahead of Essex County, which is down by 8,800 people.

Ocean County is believed to have surged ahead of Monmouth County to become the state’s fifth most-populous county. Ocean expanded by 11,800 residents in those 15 months, surpassing Monmouth even though the latter’s growth of around 1,700 was fourth-most in the state.

And Camden County is now thought to be bigger than shrinking Passaic County, swapping the eighth and ninth rankings.

The county population estimates were issued six weeks ago. Municipal-level estimates are expected this month.

Changes in NJ county populations since 2020

Census Bureau estimates of the change in county populations since the 2020 Census on April 1, 2020 also provide a glimpse into COVID-era trends, as that's roughly the same time the pandemic began. The list below sorts New Jersey's 21 counties by their total change between the Census and the July 1, 2021 estimate.

New Jersey's smallest towns by population

New Jersey's least populated municipalities, according to the 2020 Census. This list excludes Pine Valley, which would have been the third-smallest with 21 residents but voted to merge into Pine Hill at the start of 2022.

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