From The St. Louis Post Dispatch

IT WAS a great relief to learn that Missouri did not, in fact, see a one-day jump of 5,000 new coronavirus infections on Saturday, as the state’s new online pandemic data dashboard briefly reported.

The Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services subsequently admitted that a technical error on its database coughed up the erroneous number.

But this is by no means an all’s-well-that-ends-well situation. The state still had no accurate count of COVID-19 cases and deaths for days afterward, meaning health care professionals, political leaders and the public were all in the dark. Gov. Mike Parson owes the state some answers.

The first weapon against the coronavirus is information: Are the numbers of cases statewide rising or falling, where is it spreading fastest, where is it under control? That data influences the policy decisions state and local leaders make concerning school and business closures, as well as affecting the personal decisions that individuals make as they navigate the pandemic. How people conduct themselves if they live in an area with low infection rates is and should be different than if they’re in an area where it’s spiking.

That’s why the state has paid the New York firm End Point more than $128,000 for the coronavirus data dashboard system, called EpiTrax, which went up late last month. The idea was to make widely available real-time information tracking virus cases statewide, by county, per capita and demographically, along with a ranking of the state’s infection rate as compared to the rest of the country.

All good ideas — when they work. Over the weekend, they didn’t. DHSS officials say the shocking numbers Missourians saw on the site Saturday were caused by a “database extract error” that resulted in “incorrect inflation in the number of reported cases going back over several days, suggesting that over 5,020 cases had been added in 24 hours.” Worse, it was expected to take until Wednesday before the department could get the proper numbers posted.

DHSS Director Randall Williams, a holdover from the administration of disgraced former Gov. Eric Greitens, has a way of frequently ending up in the middle of explosive controversies. Under his leadership, the department has epically screwed up the launch of the state’s medical-marijuana industry, resulting in a flood of lawsuits from would-be distributors. The department also got caught last year improperly tracking women’s menstrual cycles in trying to regulate abortion. This, it seems, is another mark on an already blemished record.

But this time, it’s a matter of life and death. As St. Louis University researcher Chris Prener told the Post-Dispatch’s Kurt Erickson, “We risk flying blind in a pandemic.” It’s not enough to say the problem will be solved. Williams and Parson need to explain why this happened, and why Missourians shouldn’t be worried about it happening again.

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