A report published this week by the Legislative Office of Fiscal Transparency revealed the extent to which state health officials failed Oklahomans who tried to make smart decisions for themselves and family members during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

The legislative oversight board found the Oklahoma State Department of Health’s implementation of “a basic public health tool used throughout the world” inadequate and ineffective. From the beginning, case management and contact tracing were considered key pieces of the strategy to mitigate and stop transmission of the novel coronavirus through communities. 

LOFT analysts found the state’s contact tracing system was overwhelmed by May, when the governor began lifting restrictions on businesses. Beefed up staffing at an Oklahoma City call center fell short of what was needed to recover, and OSDH reportedly abandoned contact tracing altogether in December as new cases and deaths spiked. 

“OSDH contact tracing efforts failed to keep pace with the growing spread and exposure of COVID-19,” the authors of the report state. “From September 24th to December 23rd, contacts being monitored by OSDH decreased by 65% while the number of positive COVID-19 cases increased by 205% during the same period.”

Documents gathered by LOFT analysts show just $1.79 million of the $55 million allocated from coronavirus relief funds for case management and contact tracing systems was spent for that purpose. OSDH spent $6.72 million from a grant to operate the call center, which the report shows was staffed with far fewer people than what is recommended during a public health emergency. 

This fundamental failure at the most basic level reflects the lack of leadership demonstrated by Gov. Kevin Stitt throughout this pandemic. The governor for inexplicable reasons politicized the pandemic and put the health of all Oklahomans at risk. 

Stitt rushed to lift restrictions, refused to follow the guidance of public health experts, and confused the message. While some might hail those decisions as a victory, the LOFT report shows there was a cost: small-business revenue fell at a rate that corresponds with the rise in COVID-19 test positivity rates.  

The shortcomings of the system OSDH relied on to mitigate the COVID-19 pandemic were known more than a decade ago but ignored. Those shortcomings were ignored, and lives were lost. 

Let’s hope that mistake is not repeated. 

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