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P.R. gov’t orders investigation of fatalities after Hurricane Maria

By on December 18, 2017

Destroyed communities are seen in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria in Toa Alta, Puerto Rico. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert, File)

After sending a press release this morning reacting to discrepancies related to the island’s death toll following the passage of Hurricane Maria, Gov. Ricardo Rosselló Nevares indicated during a press conference that his administration has begun an investigation of the data obtained by several news media that raised those figures to more than 1,000 people.

Rosselló Nevares indicated that it is the government’s responsibility to provide exact numbers, based on certified information from the relevant agencies, and maintained that this process has been clear from the beginning. The official death toll linked to Hurricane Maria is currently 64.

“From the beginning, we have said the numbers we release are for certified deaths. That goes through a process in collaboration with the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention while we also were facing the challenges we have had [to recover from the hurricane]. We have always said these numbers would continue to rise,” Rosselló Nevares said in a press release, while signing into law legislation that would make it possible to reduce the number of central government agencies.

“It is important to establish that because, if not, one can go on the imaginary journey that one wants to reduce the number of deaths for X or Y reason. That is not true. What we have established is that this has been our protocol. It is not that we are amending or changing something in that; it is that we have identified several things,” he added.

The governor assured that all agencies will be asked that were involved in the process to account for a resident’s death, such as the Demographic Registry, Health Department and Forensic Sciences Institute. They must present a detailed report on the processes that were followed to account for the deceased people who were registered as deaths from natural cause.

In addition, he emphasized that the government’s information is based exclusively on the death certificates completed by the doctor who certified the death. If the doctor made an error in cataloging the death as related or unrelated to the hurricane, that death would have to be recertified, he said.

“The doctor is the one who says whether the death was a direct or indirect result of the hurricane or was due to natural causes or murder or any other reason. We have requested that these doctors be called, and that even those who established that X person died of natural causes, to review their registry to see if there is anything that would indicate that this death was the result of the passage of the hurricane,” Rosselló Nevares said.

“It may be the case that someone died from some illness because they didn’t receive treatment. Maybe the doctor only said [the death] was the product of a sickness. We are going to review that and are reiterating our request to these doctors that if there was additional information that could lead us to conclude the death was the product of the hurricane, that they provide it to us,” he added, while emphasizing that his administration is committed to “correctly” learning the truth about these deaths.

Although he did not indicate a date in which he expects to receive the first report on the investigation or who will commission the investigative work, the chief executive stressed that the responsibility of informing the government about the causes of death rests with the doctors, who are the professionals who certify the reason for the death.

The press release, sent today from the Executive Office, explains that “the government cannot include a fatality in the official list related to the hurricane based on a statistical analysis. Each life is more than a number and each death has important information attached, as well as an accurate report of the facts related to the person’s death. That is the law. A legal certification process is necessary from a forensic doctor or a medical doctor [….] The government seeks the most accurate count to understand how people lost their lives and to account for the impact of these storms, as well as to identify ways we can prevent deaths in future disasters.”

“This is why I have ordered the Demographic Registry and Public Security Department to conduct a thorough review and inspection of all the deaths that have occurred since Hurricane Maria hit, regardless of what the death certificate says,” the press release states.

On the other hand, from official statements, Sen. Aníbal José Torres recalled that from the beginning, the legislative minority warned about the unreliability of the statistics used by the government to count the number deaths after the passage of the hurricane.

“Since the first reports began to appear on the number of deaths following the passage of Hurricane Maria, we noticed that the statistics were not reliable. Now, three months later, they are ordering an investigation of them,” reacted the spokesman for the Popular Democratic Party.

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