What’s up with Texas’ county-level vaccination data?

Vaccination rates by county, included in the July 8 HHS Community Profile report. Note the missing data for Texas.

Anyone who’s tried to work with the federal government’s vaccination data has noticed this issue: there’s a Texas-shaped hole in the numbers.

While the CDC and HHS report vaccination data for counties and metropolitan areas in the vast majority of states, data are missing for the entire state of Texas. Data are also incomplete for several other states, including Colorado, Nebraska, and Virginia.

What’s up with Texas? A reporter friend recently asked me this question, inspiring me to look into the issue. There’s limited information directly on the CDC dashboard; a vague note in the Community Profile Reports simply notes that several states have “ ≤80% completeness reporting vaccinations by county,” including Texas at 0%—implying that the states, rather than the federal agency, is at fault.

A great article by Houston Chronicle reporter Kirkland An dives into the precise issue. An cites a CDC page on county-level vaccination data reporting, which says that, “Texas provides data that are aggregated at the state level and cannot be stratified by county.” (I later realized that this page is linked in incredibly tiny text at the very bottom of the CDC’s dashboard—classic.) 

Why is Texas providing state-level data? The answer, it turns out, lies with a unique state law:

When asked about the lack of data, Douglas Loveday, a press officer with the Texas Department of State Health Services (DSHS), said, “State statute prevents us from sharing person-level immunization data.”

Texas Health and Safety Code Sec. 161.0073 states that DSHS “may not release registry information to any individual or entity without the consent of the individual or the individual’s legally authorized representative.” There are exceptions to the rule, specifically reporting “non-identifying summary statistics.” But reporting individual records to the CDC, even if they have been stripped of identifying information, is not one of the exceptions granted by the code.

In other words: almost every other state submits anonymous, line-level vaccination data to the CDC. Each line in the dataset represents one vaccinated individual, including their county of residence and other demographic information. The CDC aggregates this line-level information into the county-level statistics published on its dashboard. But Texas is prohibited from sending this type of individual data outside of the state without individual consent, so Texas is missing from the CDC data.

Texas’ health agency does compile its own county-level vaccination data, which are available on the Texas COVID-19 vaccine dashboard. But most public health researchers (and journalists like yours truly) rely on the CDC’s standardized, national datasets—leaving Texas out of many important analyses on the vaccine rollout. 

An reports that Texas’s agency does send the CDC aggregated county-level data; it’s just organized by vaccine provider, instead of by county of residence for vaccine recipients. The national agency is working with Texas to switch to county-of-residence reporting so that the state may appear in national datasets without breaking state law. Hopefully, that Texas-sized hole in the data may be filled soon.

(It’s unclear whether similar efforts are underway for a Hawaii-sized hole in the same dataset; the CDC currently reports that Hawaii “does not provide CDC with county-of-residence information.”)

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