Utah still near bottom of vaccination rate rankings — and it’s not just because of the young population

The reporting error by Utah health officials occurred in February, but the consequences linger today.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Individuals experiencing homelessness were able to get COVID-19 vaccinations and other services on Rio Grande Street as part of a Salt Lake City Community Commitment Program Resource Fair, on Tuesday, March 30, 2021.

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Utah continues to languish at the bottom of online trackers that rank states by their COVID-19 immunization rates — and it’s not just because the state’s population includes a lot of residents who are too young to be vaccinated.

A state reporting error in February has remained in the data used by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, causing Utah’s vaccination rate to look worse than it actually is.

Utah officials submitted about 80,000 vaccination records that had not been “deduplicated,” which caused the CDC figures to show Utah had administered 80,000 more doses than it actually had.

CDC officials said they couldn’t remove the records from their system, said Tom Hudachko, spokesman for the Utah Department of Health.

“The fix was for us to stop submitting records to CDC until our actual doses administered data had caught up with what CDC was showing,” Hudachko said.

But while Utah’s “doses administered” number was catching up to the CDC data, the state wasn’t reporting the number of actual people being vaccinated during that time — or the details about them, such as where they lived or which doses they received.

So now, the number Utah reports for “total doses administered” matches closely with the one on the CDC’s website, typically within a day.

But the CDC is “missing person-level data for the time period where we were not reporting, which means first dose, fully vaccinated, demographic data, etc... are all lagging behind,” Hudachko said.

Where the error is still causing gaps

The CDC, for example, said 436,033 Utahns had been fully vaccinated as of Tuesday — more than 100,000 people below the state’s count of 565,539.

Gov. Spencer Cox has touted the state’s success at vaccinating older Utahns, ticking up the percentages of those vaccinated over age 70 and over 65. At a news conference with him in late March, Lt. Gov. Deidre Henderson noted that 80% of Utahns age 65 and older had received at least one dose of the vaccine, and more than half were fully vaccinated.

The flawed county-level data being reported by the CDC would seem to show large geographic gaps in that push to vaccinate seniors — for example, a Washington Post analysis based on CDC data recently showed Grand County had the smallest percentage of vaccinated people age 65 and older in the state, at 22.1%.

That surprised Bradon Bradford, director of the Southeast Utah Health Department. Of Grand County’s residents age 65 and older, 75% have had at least one dose, and at least half are fully vaccinated, he told The Salt Lake Tribune. Among the counties served by the department, Grand is one where vaccination appointments are snapped up as soon as they are available, he said.

In another example, the CDC reports that in Washington County, less than 30% of people age 65 and older have been fully vaccinated. In fact, 54% of seniors there have been fully vaccinated, according to recent county-level data The Tribune obtained.

“We’re aware of the CDC data discrepancy and have been working to resolve it for several weeks,” Hudachko said.

“Our data are accurate and we’re trying to determine how best to get CDC’s site to reflect our data,” he said, “but we haven’t figured out a solution yet.”

The challenges for a young state

As of Tuesday, about 600,000 Utahns had been fully vaccinated with either both doses of the Pfizer or Moderna vaccine or the one-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine. That total is about 26% of state residents who are over age 16 and eligible to get immunized.

And more than one million Utahns have had at least one shot of COVID-19 vaccine — which means about 44% of the state’s residents who are eligible have at least started on that path, state health officials say.

But Utah remains near the very bottom of nationwide online trackers of COVID-19 vaccination rates. It was recently ahead of only Georgia in the Washington Post’s version, which said only 30% of Utahns had received at least one dose.

That difference reflects Utah’s other challenge with perceptions about how well it’s vaccinating residents — most online trackers, based on CDC data and calculating vaccinations per capita using total state populations, don’t take into account Utah’s large percentage of children, most of whom aren’t eligible for the vaccines under current federal drug rules.

And those per-capita vaccination rates don’t necessarily show how efficiently doses are being administered. By contrast, Utah has administered more than 86% of the doses that have been delivered here, according to CDC data — the thirteenth highest rate in the nation.

However, in calculations of the percent of Utahns vaccinated, the February data error is a much bigger factor than Utah’s large population of children; while the CDC ranks Utah 49th in the percent of residents vaccinated, that rank rises just to 48 when including only the adult population.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration could give the OK to administer the vaccine from Pfizer and its German partner, BioNTech, to younger Americans within a couple of months. They recently reported that their vaccine was extremely effective against the virus when given to adolescents 12 to 15 years old.

Because around 30% of Utah’s population is under age 18, vaccinating children is imperative to reach the all-important “herd immunity” necessary to stop the spread of COVID-19, Utah doctors agree.

Utah’s allocation of vaccine doses per adult population lags behind most other states because federal officials have been using population estimates from 2018 — figures that disadvantage fast-growing states.

Other states that have seen recent growth have raised the same issue; Texas Sens. Ted Cruz and John Cornyn sent a letter to the CDC last month asking it “to immediately rectify this problem and to use current population data when making future allocations of the COVID-19 vaccine to the states and territories.”

Cox has said federal officials have told him they plan to update the population statistics they use to allocate vaccines to states.