Response to the COVID-19 pandemic has been needlessly muddled.

If you live in Missouri, the best decision-making has been made closest to the ground.

The federal effort has been chaotic and confusing. Even as guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have been helpful, no federal agency is free from political meddling by this White House, and that gives a citizen pause.

Statewide leadership in Missouri has been deficient. Gov. Mike Parson, under enormous political pressure, has done too little and been a bit late in setting rules – not much more than requests, actually – for social distancing. The definition of essential business basically has been left to the honor system, and that just doesn’t work.

Now the governor is saying May 3 is the date to end state stay-at-home orders – but that only applies to the portions of the state not under stricter local rules, less than half of Missouri’s population. His moves are creating confusion about the current May 15 date in the Kansas City area and elsewhere, and that undermines the overall effort.

However, elected officials in the Kansas City area have taken the data and the advice of health professionals to heart in making their decisions, including issuing stay-at-home orders.

Area hospitals, by most accounts, have done a commendable job in recent weeks of emptying beds to get ready for a surge in cases. And it appears – appears – that stay-at-home orders are helping and have flattened the curve significantly. That is not to say we are out of the woods, but it suggests that we could avoid overwhelming the medical system.

Finally, those who have done the best jobs are the people themselves. Yes, the streets are too full, and far too few people going out are wearing masks – adding to the risk for everyone. Some people are simply heedless about the safety of others. But by and large people have cut through the federal noise and have embraced the need to stay safe and stay home.

Those protesting at state capitals and elsewhere to lift stay-at-home orders are a small minority pushing a political agenda – November is not far off – while denying the overall, unchanging truth: The way to deal with the economy is to deal with the health crisis.

Local leaders and others have very tough choices ahead. How much dare we ease up on the safety measures in place? Until we have widespread COVID-19 testing, contact tracing and better gear for first responders and others, more human contact means more disease and death. Looser rules in one place put people in many other places at higher risk.

So what is the right amount of risk?

Closing the schools wasn’t an easy choice, but it was obvious. Same for nonessential business and other institutions right down the line. Now come tougher choices. We cannot discount the politics of this, the desire for people to get out, or the need to earn a paycheck. But science needs to continue to drive policy.