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N.H. looked like a leader on COVID-19 vaccines, but ‘data errors’ might have inflated its progress

  • A sign leading into the COVID-19 vaccination site at the Keene State College athletic facility. Vaccine Sign Staff photo by Ben Conant

Published: 6/8/2021 10:54:42 AM

Over the last few months, Gov. Chris Sununu and other state leaders eagerly touted New Hampshire’s apparently booming COVID-19 vaccination rate. They pointed to a range of numbers — the percent of New Hampshire’s population with at least one shot, the speed at which the state was using up its vaccine supply — to portray the state as a leader in the race out of the pandemic.

“We’re leading the nation in many ways, in terms of vaccine distribution,” Sununu said at a press conference just last week.

Until recently, the data appeared to support Sununu’s claims. After a lagging start earlier this year, New Hampshire’s vaccine numbers shot up quickly in early April — helping it leapfrog over other states to claim the fastest vaccination rate in the nation, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

But as state officials were boasting about New Hampshire’s progress, the state’s own vaccine totals veered widely from those reported by the CDC. Throughout much of April and early May, the CDC reported more than 100,000 more first-dose recipients in New Hampshire than the state was reporting on its vaccine dashboard. Then, throughout most of May, the CDC was reporting far fewer fully vaccinated people in New Hampshire than the state’s own dashboard.

Nonetheless, Sununu kept talking about the state’s comparatively speedy vaccine rollout in national news outlets and Facebook ad campaigns, where he said New Hampshire had the “fastest vaccination rate in the country.” The data was also used to steer policy decisions, like lifting the statewide mask mandate in mid-April, earlier than any other state in the Northeast.

“Folks know we are among one of, if not the best in the country,” Sununu said at an April 15 press conference where he announced the change in mask rules. “We are really on the top, in terms of the speed of vaccine, and, really, what has happened over the past month has been an absolute gamechanger.”

When asked about differences in vaccine data, state leaders said they had no control over and little insight into where the CDC was getting its numbers.

“I’m not sure exactly where the CDC gets all their data,” Sununu said at an April 22 press conference. “I can tell you, in terms of getting the vaccines out, we keep track of our data, our numbers that come in. I think they’re very accurate and the folks have done a great job, and New Hampshire keeps crushing it.”

At the same time, Sununu continued to make claims that relied on federal data to illustrate New Hampshire’s supposed success compared to the rest of the nation.

“You know, this is the best country in the world in terms of vaccine administration, really, and we’re the best state in the country,” Sununu said at a May 6 press conference. “So it’s a lot to be proud of here. The system works very, very well.”

At that time, the CDC’s data showed New Hampshire outpacing the rest of the nation on one key metric: getting first shots out to residents. According to federal data, at least 60 percent of the state’s population had received at least one dose as of May 6.

But within a day, the state’s totals on that same metric dropped substantially in the CDC’s vaccine tracker. And in the last month, New Hampshire’s vaccine numbers as reported by the CDC have been revised downward several times, which means that the state might not have been as far in front of the rest of the country as it previously appeared on several measures of its vaccine progress.

In fact, over the past month, the CDC had to correct New Hampshire’s vaccination numbers several times. The number of people who received at least one dose of the vaccine went down by about 55,000 on May 7. In a note, the CDC said the correction was due to the state and agency “collaboratively correcting data transmission errors.”

Three weeks later, New Hampshire’s data was revised downward again. This time, the CDC said the change was due to “an error in data processing.” Other states don’t appear to have seen the same kind of revisions, according to the CDC’s records.

In both cases, the changes shifted New Hampshire’s vaccination totals substantially. The most recent data from the CDC’s vaccine tracker shows that about 60 percent of New Hampshire residents have received at least one dose of the vaccine as of June 3. That was the same number originally reported for New Hampshire at the end of April, before its numbers were revised downward. New Hampshire has also seen a big decrease in the speed at which it’s using the doses shipped here by the federal government.

The state has appeared to pull ahead in terms of the number of people who are fully vaccinated — now ranking near the top of the country, according to the CDC’s numbers. It’s not clear if the jump in that metric is at all related to the decreases in first doses.

In the time period where it appeared that New Hampshire was at or near the top of the nation in delivering first doses, the state was also reporting a big gap between first- and second-dose recipients. The recent data revisions have closed that gap, bringing New Hampshire more in line with what’s reported in other states.

State officials said the data errors stemmed from a program designed to distribute the vaccine through pharmacies. Dr. Beth Daly, the chief of the state’s Bureau of Infectious Disease Control, said pharmacies were reporting their data back to the state as well as the federal government, resulting in duplicate counts.

“When we realized that was happening, we worked with the CDC to resolve that issue and make sure the data is as accurate as possible,” Daly said in response to questions about the issue at a June 3 press conference. “I suspect that also could have affected other states’ numbers as well, if they had that type of duplicate reporting set up.”

Daly did not specify when New Hampshire officials became aware of the issue but said they first started looking into possible issues “as the CDC numbers were increasing beyond what our tracking number was.” She said she would need to look more closely at specific dates and numbers to provide more context on the changes. But when NHPR reached out to the Department of Health and Human Services with those details the agency did not provide further explanation.

“Throughout the pandemic, the State has consistently reminded the public that there would be differences between the vaccine data the CDC reports and what the State reports,” DHHS Communications Director Jake Leon wrote in an email. “The State of New Hampshire only reports the vaccination numbers that State Health Officials are responsible for on a daily and weekly basis.”

Leon said “New Hampshire does not have complete knowledge of, nor control over, how the CDC aggregates all of their data coming from a variety of sources.”

CDC Spokeswoman Kate Fowlie said the federal government’s vaccination data “is not intended to rank jurisdictions,” and emphasized that states would have the most up-to-date information on their vaccine progress.

“Vaccination data reported on the CDC COVID Data Tracker might differ from data reported by jurisdictions for several reasons, including reporting schedules, data cleaning and lag time,” Fowlie added.

Data revisions aren’t the only thing leveling off New Hampshire’s vaccine numbers. Here, as in other states across the country, the rate of new vaccinations is plateauing. With traffic slowing at its once-bustling mass vaccination sites, the state is shifting its focus away from large-scale clinics and instead trying to focus even more intently on reaching out in smaller settings to people who haven’t yet had a chance to get their vaccines.

Even with these revisions, state officials said they still consider New Hampshire’s vaccine rollout to be strong.

“After the data correction, we’re still doing very good,” Dr. Beth Daly said in response to questions about the data changes at a recent press conference. “So it’s difficult to say exactly what that impact would have been and retroactively try to adjust that.”

 

These articles are being shared by partners in The Granite State News Collaborative. For more information visit collaborativenh.org.


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