When Oklahoma finally is out from under the COVID- 19 pandemic, perhaps the importance of regularly upgrading state agency infrastructure will emerge as one enduring lesson for lawmakers.

Interim Health Commissioner Lance Frye said recently that the pandemic “has really propelled us forward and allowed us to fix a lot of things that needed to be fixed.” A major problem, however, was that so much needed fixing.

The pandemic underlined the department’s “breaking points,” Frye told The Oklahoman’s Chris Casteel. “A lot of those were around a lack of investing in infrastructure. They had not updated systems. There was no lab capability.”

The state’s online casereporting system, Frye said, “was decades old and broken and just frankly incapable of processing that number of lab results.”

Shelley Zumwalt, head of the Oklahoma Employment Security Commission, wrote in an op-ed Sunday in The Oklahoman that the agency was inundated with claims amid pandemic and, “Oklahomans struggled to get any resolution … in an unemployment system that was more than 40 years old.”

No one who has paid any attention to Oklahoma government should be surprised by these stories.

The Office of the Chief Medical Examiner moved out of its outdated building into a new headquarters in 2018, after about a decade of pleading, turmoil and legislative inaction that included one stretch where an equipment failure led to corpses being stored in refrigeration trucks.

The state’s public health laboratory faced loss of its accreditation a few years ago if it had been forced to close due to the building’s poor condition. Among other problems, the 1970s-era site was prone to regular flooding.

Before changes began a few years ago, there was no computer system in place to let the Department of Corrections track adjudications in courts across Oklahoma, and thus know when inmates had been convicted of crimes that merited them being sent to state custody.

Outdated computer software has been a concern at many state agencies.

Oklahoma’s highways and bridges were a national embarrassment before the Legislature, about 15 years ago, began providing the funding needed to make improvements.

Even then, it took a motorist being killed by a chunk of falling concrete from a bridge to prompt that change.

Similarly, only after pieces of concrete fell through the ceiling of some offices in the Capitol basement did the Republican-controlled Legislature finally approve a bond issue to renovate the century-old building. Lawmakers in recent years also have approved bonds for prison upgrades and a few other overdue items.

Zumwalt says she wants to improve her agency’s technology and make it easier to process online claims, and that she is reworking a five-year improvement plan to have it implemented in 18 months.

The pandemic has underscored the need to do so. However, it shouldn’t take such a monumental event, at the OESC or any other government agency, to drive home the importance of keeping Oklahoma’s infrastructure up with the times.

— The Oklahoman

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