ONE OF THE MOST shameful indicators of the sad state of health care in the District of Columbia is this city's infant-mortality rate, which is higher than that in any comparably sized urban area in the country. As you may have read in an informative report yesterday by staff writer B. D. Colen, a task force on health and welfare appointed by Mayor-elect Marion Barry has rightly cited this infant-mortality rate as the city's No. 1 health problem. Dr. Arthur Hoyt, a co-chairmaan of the tash force, called the situation a "public embarrassment" that deserves Mr. Barry's personal attention. It certainly does-for the record of the Walter Washington administration on this score has been inexcusable.

The District government has been unable to make any significant progress on this problem in the last 10 years. As the news account notes: "At a time when infant-mortality rates are dropping all over the nation, Washington's has remained virtually constant, rising, in fact, for blacks." One shop-worn excuse given by health officials is that the situation is particularly difficult in poor urban areas. Surely housing, schooling, nutrition and the general environment have something to do with it; but other cities have managed to make impressive progress in lowering their non-white infant-mortality rates.

Another excuse that doesn't wash is the old budget-constraints argument. Of course there is the matter of available money. But far more important is the organization and coordination of programs, the operation and location of clinics and the standards for obstetrical services-as well as the elimination of underused services. And the local government must do must more to attract pregnant women to its clinics.

So there is abundant evidence that a serious effort by the next administration could reduce the number of infant deaths. This is human tragedy on a scale large enough to justify a sense of emergency. That is what has been missing for the last decade.