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Missouri COVID-19 dashboard still down

By Kurt Erickson St. Louis Post-Dispatch

JEFFERSON CITY – Missouri early in the week remained without an accurate count of COVID-19 cases, deaths and trends on its public database, raising concern and frustration among those who use it to track the pandemic.

After a daily update on Saturday reported a record-setting increase of more than 5,000 positive tests, the Department of Health and Senior Services said Sunday those numbers were wrong and began work to fix the dashboard that had been unveiled Sept. 28.

"We are aiming to relaunch the dashboard on Wednesday morning," said DHSS spokeswoman Lisa Cox.

St. Louis University researcher and sociologist Chris Prener, who has been compiling and analyzing state coronavirus data, said the lack of daily numbers likely will skew the seven-day average counts for cases and deaths, making it harder to assess where the state stands in its response to the potentially deadly virus.

"It's a problem on its face. Accurate numbers help us think about our current response to the pandemic," Prener said. "We need those numbers because they help us think of what strategies we're using."

"When it's inaccurate, we risk flying blind in a pandemic," Prener added.

The problems, which have not been outlined in detail by state officials, drew a sharper rebuke from Auditor Nicole Galloway, a Democrat who is facing off against Republican Gov. Mike Parson on Nov. 3.

"This latest failure by Governor Parson's Department of Health is part of a pattern of scandal and incompetence," Galloway said. "Missouri doesn't just need a new dashboard. Missourians need a new governor."

State health officials on Sunday blamed the wrong count on a "database extract error," which they said resulted in what appeared to be an increase of 5,020 new cases and 27 additional deaths. The record for a daily increase in cases is 2,084, which occurred on July 30.

In all, the dashboard shows Missouri with 144,230 cases and 2,422 deaths. The seven-day average for cases is at 9,390, with deaths at a rate of 62.

Parson spokeswoman Kelli Jones said the dashboard is a "large part" of the governor's efforts to promote an economic recovery in the state.

"DHSS recognized a technology issue over the weekend and took immediate action to address it to ensure our data remains accurate and reliable," Jones said.

Prener said the reporting delay will have repercussions because there may be a weeklong period when the averages for cases and deaths won't be accurate.

"We can lose part of a month in terms of understanding the direction of the pandemic," Prener said.

House Minority Leader Crystal Quade, D-Springfield, called the situation "frustrating."

"How can we expect citizens to react accordingly? It just is a reminder of the Parson's administration's failure of leadership when it comes to the pandemic," Quade said.

The Parson administration has been scrambling since March to collect and publicize accurate information about the virus.

In May, with COVID-19 well entrenched and spreading in the state, officials began replacing an outdated computer tracking system that had been in place since 1998.

Not only was the old system labor-intensive, but the computer could not meet federal data collection, security and data transmission requirements.

In June, the Post-Dispatch reported the state would pay New York-based End Point an estimated $36,000 to install the EpiTrax system. As of Monday, payroll records show End Point has been paid more than $128,000.

Although Parson has previously said he backs DHSS Director Randall Williams' management of the agency, the director has come under fire over a number of issues during his tenure.

A special House panel has raised questions over the health department's handling of the state's medical marijuana program, which has spawned hundreds of lawsuits from would-be growers and sellers.

A year ago, during a hearing on the state's push to shut down Planned Parenthood, it was disclosed that officials within Williams' agency had tracked some patients' menstrual cycles to find examples of failed abortion procedures.

Williams also has sparred with lawmakers over funding for a program that helps get stroke and heart attack patients to the most appropriate facility in the shortest amount of time.

And, he angered some members of a House budget panel after he refused to release information about an outbreak of the tick-borne Bourbon virus.

In blocking the release of information, Williams cited confidentiality laws. Lawmakers responded by cutting eight positions in his agency's budget.

Williams was appointed director in 2017 by former Gov. Eric Greitens.