JEFFERSON CITY (AP) — It took a global pandemic to convince Missouri health officials to abandon a more than two-decade-old, homemade computer system used for tracking disease outbreaks.
And, even as the coronavirus began spreading earlier this year, records show it took more than two months for the Department of Health and Senior Services to begin the process of replacing the clunky system.
Just as states and the federal government were caught flat-footed when it came to having adequate supplies of personal protective equipment on hand in case of a pandemic, the health department said its in-house-built program made it tough to track the spread of the deadly disease.
“In the current pandemic circumstances, the outdated technology has met with severe limits on data entry and required DHSS to redirect numerous staff (including efforts by the National Guard and others) in very labor-intensive efforts just to remain caught up on disease reporting,” Department of Health and Senior Services spokeswoman Lisa Cox told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.
In addition, purchasing records say the old system, built in 1998, cannot meet federal data collection, security and data transmission requirements related to the COVID-19 outbreak.
In May, records show, the agency approached a New York-based company that was providing disease tracking software to the state of Kansas, seeking the company’s help in replacing Missouri’s system.
Terms of the no-bid, emergency contract call for End Point to be paid $150 an hour to install the EpiTrax system. A total cost is expected to be about $36,000 for four to six weeks of installation work.
“The EpiTrax case reporting system will strengthen the public health system and create resilience and faster response speeds,” Cox said.
In the scramble to respond to the coronavirus, the state and hospitals have had to pay inflated prices for personal protective equipment for front-line health care workers. Labor unions representing workers in prisons and other state-run facilities say there hasn’t been enough equipment distributed to keep employees safe.
And confusion remains over how counties can spend millions of dollars in federal emergency aid distributed to them by the state. Last week, Treasurer Scott Fitzpatrick discussed the issue with 170 local officials who are concerned about what the money can be used for.
In April, DHSS Director Randall Williams said the No. 1 principle of Gov. Mike Parson’s administration was keeping people safe. He said the state was “well prepared” to handle the virus.
“This is what we do,” said Williams, who is a physician. “We have an excellent health care system. We have an incredibly robust health system. We do not think you’re going to see numbers like China.”
As of June 22, China has reported 4,639 deaths, compared with 120,393 in the United States.
The latest figures from DHSS show hospitalizations are down as of last week, to 415. But deaths rose by 5 to 961 on Monday; and the number of cases has risen 8.2 percent over the past week, to 18,143.
Williams was appointed director in 2017 by then-Gov. Eric Greitens after serving as a top health official in North Carolina.