On October 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 Governor 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, the Center of Investigative Journalism (CPI) has found that the official death toll (now 62) is way off—by almost 1,000 people.
The CPI looked at death rates in the 40 day window after Hurricane María hit Puerto Rico and compared it to data from the two previous years. What they found was a major spike in deaths—at least 985—when compared to the same period in 2016.
The number is even greater when you look at the entire month of September and October—this includes possible deaths from Hurricane Irma, which passed through Puerto Rico a few days before María. The number of additional deaths increases to 1,065.
Deaths in Puerto Rico
If you want to think about in terms of percentages, the average daily death rate in Puerto Rico increased by 43% after Maria devastated the island. On some days, that rate was 80% 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 CPI found the death tolls were highest among men and women over 50 years old who were living in hospitals and nursings homes and suffering from conditions like kidney disease, pneumonia, Alzheimer’s and diabetes. The CPI notes that these kinds of deaths during September and October were significantly higher this year than they were last year.
CPI 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 CPI that the low official count shows that the current process of assessing causes of death after disasters needs to be fixed.
“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 CPI that it’s important 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 only be attributed to a natural disaster if a physician makes 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 they have 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).
source: the root