On Oct. 3, during his horrific visit to Puerto Rico, Donald Trump congratulated the island’s governor, Ricardo Roselló, on the U.S. territory’s death toll following the devastation wrought by Hurricane María.
“Sixteen [dead] people certified,” Trump told Roselló. “Sixteen people versus in the thousands. You can be very proud of all of your people and all of our people working together. Sixteen versus literally thousands of people. You can be very proud.”
More than two months after the storm hit, Puerto Rico’s Center for Investigative Journalism has found that the official death toll (now 62) is way off—by almost 1,000 people.
The center looked at death rates in the 40-day window after Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico and compared them with data from the two previous years. What they found was a major spike in deaths—at least 985—when compared with the same period in 2016.
The number was even greater when looking at the entire month of September and October—this includes possible deaths from Hurricane Irma, which passed through Puerto Rico a few days before Maria. The number of additional deaths increased to 1,065.
Deaths in Puerto Rico
If you want to think about it in terms of percentages, the average daily death rate in Puerto Rico increased by 43 percent after Maria devastated the island, the Center for Investigative Journalism found. On some days, that rate was 80 percent higher.
The historic Category 4 storm caused massive infrastructure damage to the island, knocking out power across Puerto Rico. Hospitals were forced to operate in darkness and without electricity, while towns across the island were short on food, water and gasoline for weeks.
The center found the death tolls were highest among men and women over 50 years old who were living in hospitals and nursing homes and suffering from conditions like kidney disease, pneumonia, Alzheimer’s disease and diabetes. The center noted that these kinds of deaths during September and October were significantly higher this year than they were last year.
The Center for Investigative Journalism also spoke to a demographer at Puerto Rico’s Demographic Registry, which supplied the data used to count the deaths. José A. López confirmed to the investigative outlet that the increase in deaths over last year was significant. He also told the center that the low official count shows that the current process of assessing causes of death after disasters needs to be fixed.
From the Center for Investigative Journalism:
“We need to have a serious and honest discussion of all the sectors involved,” he added, noting that there is a lack of understanding of the process and its importance on the island.
According to López, from the point of view of public health, any increase of more than 15% in mortality trends must be studied to find an explanation, because it is indicative that something atypical is happening. In the case of some contagious diseases, for example, when a 3% increase happens, “we have to run,” he added.
López also told the investigative outlet that it’s important because an accurate mortality rate “allows us to plan and carry out work plans to improve public health and prevent deaths, especially when this type of event will continue to occur.”
Right now, a death can be attributed to a natural disaster only if physicians make a note of it in the victim’s death certificate when they list the clinical cost of death—which doctors and hospitals aren’t particularly inclined to do. Another complication: The doctor who fills out the death certificate may not be the doctor who was charged with caring for the patient, meaning that he or she has less context for how the patient was doing prior to the stress or conditions a natural disaster may have triggered (like a lack of power or medical supplies).
Read more at Latino USA.