Health Care

How Vermont’s magic number got buried by data discrepancies

Man holds up sleeve while EMT delivers injection
Mike Daley receives his first dose of the Covid-19 vaccine at a clinic in Beecher Falls on March 29, 2021. Photo by Mike Dougherty/VTDigger

Several readers wrote to us this week to express confusion when the VTDigger Covid-19 tracker — fed by Vermont Department of Health numbers — showed a vaccination rate of 80.09%, above Gov. Phil Scott’s goal for reopening the state.

At the same time, Gov. Scott was tweeting a separate figure: 79.6%, with 2,093 people to go before Vermont hits that target. 

What gives?

Reporting on large population data with this degree of precision is complicated. Two thousand Vermonters is only 0.3% of the state population, so the smallest discrepancies between different data sources can throw off the fine-tuned system the health department had in place.

Since December, the health department has reported vaccine numbers through its dashboard, which breaks down doses by age, county and race, among other factors. As of Thursday, June 10, it reports that 441,245 people had received at least one dose of the vaccine. 

Until May, the dashboard also reported the percentage of eligible Vermonters who had started vaccination. That data included all state-run vaccination clinics, along with federal pharmacy partners. It did not include vaccines administered by Veterans Affairs or the Department of Defense.

On May 20, the dashboard switched to a new system: the percentage of vaccinated Vermonters reported by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which “includes some data not reported to the Vermont Department of Health,” according to the health department website. 

The next day, Scott announced his intentions to drop Covid restrictions when 80% of the eligible population is vaccinated. 

Over that weekend, Scott tweeted graphics that showed Vermont’s progress toward that goal, but it became clear to his team that the numbers weren’t adding up. On May 25, he said at a press conference that he was walking back those percentages.

“We decided to proactively reach out to the CDC to ensure the accuracy of the CDC vaccination numbers,” said Michael Smith, secretary of the Vermont Agency of Human Services. “We did find duplicate reporting in one batch of Veterans Affairs numbers reported late last week and in a limited number of independent pharmacies.”

About 15,000 duplicates were in the data, Smith said.

Smith said the state would remove Veterans Affairs numbers in its reporting to the CDC in the future, and in the meantime the Scott administration would report its own numbers, adjusted for that issue.

It’s unclear what progress has been made on fixing the data processing since that time. On June 1, Smith said the CDC had removed 6,900 duplicate records, but 8,800 duplicates remained.

Meanwhile, the health department dashboard now has a blank spot where its percentages used to be, referring people to the Vermont Forward Plan website. As of Thursday, the site was slightly behind Scott’s tweet, claiming there are 2,385 people to go rather than 2,093. 

The raw data behind the dashboard still included vaccination numbers, which VTDigger used to power its own tracker. When readers pointed out the discrepancy, we removed the figures and are now using the Vermont Forward Plan data.

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Erin Petenko

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