Gov. Spencer Cox says ‘we screwed up’ in reporting inaccurate COVID-19 vaccination rate in Utah

Utah Department of Health’s data error led to inflated report of hitting 70% goal by July 4.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Gov. Spencer Cox answers questions during the Governor's COVID-19 briefing, at the Utah Capitol on Thursday, July 1, 2021.

Gov. Spencer Cox confessed that his July 4 assertion — that Utah reached its goal of vaccinating 70% of adults against COVID-19 — is wrong, because of a data error made by the Utah Department of Health.

“We screwed up. And I sincerely apologize,” Cox wrote in an open letter to Utahns, issued from his office Monday.

Cox had touted last Tuesday, just after the Independence Day weekend, that Utah had surpassed the goal of 70% of all adults getting at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine.

The UDOH stats after that weekend showed 65.2% of Utahns 18 and older had received at least one dose of the vaccine. However, Cox wrote in a celebratory Twitter thread that didn’t include the almost 115,000 doses given out in Utah by federal agencies — in particular, the Department of Veterans Affairs, the military, federal corrections facilities or Indian Health Services. Add those doses, Cox tweeted last week, and 70.2% of Utah adults counted as getting at least partly vaccinated.

UDOH issued a statement Monday saying it miscounted how the federally administered doses were categorized. UDOH had gotten its data from a federal system called Tiberius, and, according to the statement, “the UDOH mistakenly interpreted all federal doses reported in Tiberius as ‘new’ doses, when in fact Tiberius reports ‘cumulative’ doses. This misunderstanding led to single doses being counted multiple times.”

When the numbers are crunched correctly, UDOH said, 67.07% of Utah’s adult population has received at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine as of Monday, July 12.

“It is disappointing to discover we did not reach our goal of vaccinating 70% of adults with at least one dose by July 4,” UDOH said in its statement. “And we regret that inaccurate information was relayed to Gov. Cox and the people of Utah. But we remain steadfast in our commitment to presenting data accurately, transparently, and with integrity.”

Cox, in his letter, said that “while federal data sharing has been extremely difficult, this one is on us. Our data team is devastated and embarrassed. And so am I.”

The mistake, Cox wrote, was “simple human error,” and there was “no evidence of any ethical breaches.”

Cox praised UDOH’s data analysts, saying they have been recognized nationally for being “the most thorough and transparent.” The data team, he said, has “reexamined processes to prevent this type of error from happening again.”

The revised data, Cox wrote, “means we have even more work to get Utahns vaccinated. We will continue to do everything possible to make vaccinations easier and more accessible. And we will continue to hold ourselves accountable.”

Utah hit a different milestone Monday: More than half of all Utahns, 50.1%, have received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, according to UDOH’s dashboard. That number includes children 11 and younger, who are not eligible to be vaccinated yet. Utah has a larger population of children, 29% according to U.S. Census Bureau figures, than the national average of 22.3%.

According to UDOH’s dashboard Monday, 62% of Utahns 12 and older — the age groups eligible to get a COVID-19 vaccine — have received at least one dose. The 12-18 group has the lowest rate of getting the shot, at 37.8%.

Utah’s goal of a 70% vaccination rate by Independence Day mirrored the pledge made in May by President Joe Biden to hit the same rate nationwide. On July 4, the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said 67% of adults nationwide had received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine — so Utah, it turns out, was in line with the national rate.