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How the pandemic has impacted Utah marriages, and divorces, births and deaths

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Kadie Smeding prepares to walk the aisle and marry her fiance Tyler van Roosendaal in a Salt Lake City yard on Saturday, April 4, 2020.

It’s Valentine’s Day weekend, and love is in the air. Or, wait... I think it’s love. Hopefully, it’s not just coronavirus-laden droplets floating about.

Regardless, this is a time when couples often get engaged and get hitched. So I thought it might be a good time to see how the pandemic has impacted the vital statistics of Utah — our marriages, and yes, our divorces, along with our births and deaths. There’s no all-in-one source for this information, so we’ll have to rely on a few data sets to try get the full picture. Let’s dig in.

Marriages

There’s no statewide database of marriages — marriage licenses are handled by the individual county clerks. So to try to get an idea of how the pandemic impacted weddings, I reached out to the clerk in Salt Lake County, Utah’s largest, to get the numbers for 2019 and 2020.

You see the numbers are relatively similar through January, February, and even March. Indeed, marriages were actually higher in March — maybe people were looking to tie the knot before the pandemic hit.

But after that, they cratered. They declined by about two-thirds in April and were about half of normal in May, though they rebounded some in the months after that. It makes sense. Some couples dream of the big wedding, getting their family and friends together, and 2020 wasn’t the year for that. But as the months went on and the pandemic became our new normal, pandemic weddings with bridesmaids with face masks that matched their dresses became normal too.

Indeed, I was surprised to see that at the height of the pandemic in December, marriage licenses sold were about 69% of what they’d be in a normal year. I would have figured those people would choose to wait.

Divorces

We can get data on divorces from the Utah state court system, where people make legal filings when they want their marriages to end. Here’s the month-by-month data on how divorce has changed from 2019 to 2020.

This one’s a little funny. You can see the number of divorces go significantly down in March and April, then jump up to new highs for the year in June. Pent up demand! After that, from July to December, the number of divorces is largely consistent in 2020 to where it was in 2019. Overall, there were 522 fewer divorces in 2020, a decline of about 4%.

I was curious: was there a difference in the various Utah counties between divorces? Maybe those who took the pandemic more seriously would see different divorce rates?

The percentage change in Salt Lake and Utah counties was about the same. Among smaller counties, Washington, Box Elder, and Cache counties all saw divorce numbers rise, while it fell in the other counties.

Births

It’s the births picture that might be the most complicated to figure out. Birth data typically takes significant time to be compiled, and there’s that whole matter of a 9-month pregnancy. Also, the first months of the pandemic aren’t likely to see any change in birth rates.

We do have a good amount of data to use as a baseline. The Utah Department of Health reports that Utah’s birth rate has consistently fallen over the past decade. It’s still above the average birthrate in America, but the gap is getting closer. Utah’s birthrate of 2% per year is now 4th in the nation.

Here are the number of births in each year in each of Utah’s 29 counties. Select a county in the drop-down menu at the top of the chart to highlight its graph.

The problem is that each year’s estimate is calculated in the middle of the year — so in the chart above, the 2020 number actually reflects the number of births from July 1, 2019 to June 30, 2020. The number of births in late 2020 hasn’t yet been tabulated, and that’s when we might expect to see real change in the data if the pandemic either encouraged baby making or dissuaded it.

We can get some hints, though. Preliminary data from the Utah Office of Vital Records and Statistics shows that births have decreased in the late stages of 2020 compared to those in the prior few years.

Now, you can see that declining trend at play here: births from 2019 were lower than those in 2018, and so on. But even beyond that, it does seem like we see a slightly larger slide than otherwise expected: there were 24,877 births in July-December of 2017, 24,470 births in those months in 2018, 24,243 in 2019, and a bigger jump down to only 23,248 in 2020.

Again, this is preliminary data, so we can’t make hard conclusions yet. Furthermore, there is reason to believe that the 2020 birth number might be a little bit harder to capture. One report from KUTV in January indicated that deliveries were down about 10% at Intermountain Healthcare hospitals — but that demand for the services of a midwife for at-home births was up. It’s clear that people are avoiding hospitals at a higher rate, making it even harder to collect quality birth information.

But I think we can safely conclude births have declined in the pandemic — it’s just a matter of by how much.

Deaths

During the pandemic, we’ve done a very good job of tracking all sorts of death, from COVID-19 and other causes. Here, we actually have month-by-month counts of how death increased in our state.

It increased by a lot! In all, we estimate that death counts rose by about 2,600 since the beginning of the pandemic. Most of that increase came in the last quarter of 2020, as coronavirus case counts and deaths started to skyrocket.

A majority of that increase is due to COVID-19 — we’ve had about 1,800 confirmed coronavirus deaths so far in Utah — but we’ve also seen increased deaths from other factors, like Alzheimer’s and stroke. A more complete accounting of all of the death increases by cause is available at the CDC’s excess deaths website.

Looking at the four major types of vital statistics, I think there’s a trend. Marriage and divorce data show that immediate impact the pandemic had on our lives and then things started to drift back to normal throughout 2020. But the biggest changes in number of lives — births and deaths — came late in 2020 and likely will spill into 2021. What will happen with marriages this year? The numbers could well rebound. Let’s see how many of your friends got engaged this weekend.

Andy Larsen is a data columnist. He is also one of The Salt Lake Tribune’s Utah Jazz beat writers. You can reach him at alarsen@sltrib.com.

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