Preliminary report on Hurricane Maria deaths in Puerto Rico vanishes
SAN JUAN – Just over three months after Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rosselló announced an investigation into Hurricane Maria-related deaths would be delegated to researchers from George Washington University (GW), very little is known about the results of the first phase, which was due Tuesday.
The decision to commission the study came after the Center for Investigative Journalism (CPI), the New York Times and other publications found that more than 1,000 deaths could be attributed to the hurricane, well over the official toll of 64. This caused a wave of media pressure that vehemently questioned the veracity of the information disclosed by the government, a task that had been delegated by executive order to a working group headed by the secretary of the Department of Public Safety (DSP), Héctor Pesquera, in coordination with the Demographic Registry and the Forensic Sciences Bureau.
The GW team had the task of establishing a process to review the deaths that occurred to determine whether they were related to the passage of the weather phenomenon and to present a report within a 90-day period. Long before the deadline and in order to guarantee a transparent and independent process, the governor brought in the experts from GW’s Milken Institute School of Public Health to the equation and announced its contracting capped at $305,388.
“The preliminary report will be the first deliverable due date and it will be on or before May 22, 2018. The maximum amount assigned to that task will be ONE HUNDRED AND TWENTY-FIVE THOUSAND DOLLARS ($125,000). After the delivery of the preliminary report, the Contractor will have sixty (60) days to complete and submit the final report and the deliverable due date will be no later than July 23, 2018, provided that an amendment to the contract is generated. The invoice of the service rendered as part of this task will be up to ONE HUNDRED EIGHTY THOUSAND THREE HUNDRED SIXTY-EIGHT DOLLARS ($180,368),” reads page 4 of the contract between Forensic Sciences and GW.
At 5:55 p.m. Monday, Pesquera issued a press release announcing that the GW team had requested additional time to submit the final report. However, nothing was said about the preliminary report established in the contract.
“The secretary of the Department of Public Safety, Héctor Pesquera, reported that the team of researchers from the Milken Institute School of Public Health of George Washington University requested additional time to complete the commissioned study on deaths after Hurricane Maria for the island. According to Professor Carlos Santos Burgoa, director of the study, the final report may be completed this summer to be able to finalize the analysis of the available databases,” the release reads.
The communication, which occurred at the same time that the CPI and CNN tried to obtain, by legal means, detailed documents from the Demographic Registry on the deaths registered in Puerto Rico in 2017, suggests that the promised preliminary report will not be revealed or that it will be delivered but not disclosed, an inference the press director of the DSP, Karixia Ortiz, tried to clarify.
“At the February 21st press conference, it had been established that the university was going to deliver a report in three months. In this stage, what was commissioned in this first part, because in that same conference […] I say the first part because in that conference we were always open to the possibility that this was an issue that could bear fruit to many analyzes and studies, but at the moment what we wanted to know was this part of the report that was going to be rendered on May 22. However, since the university requested time, it will no longer be delivered [Tuesday]. We have not talked about a preliminary report, we spoke about the final report that corresponded to a May 22 delivery. That is the only date that has been spoken about,” Ortiz said.
On May 8, Caribbean Business asked the governor’s press secretary, Yennifer Álvarez Jaimes, about the status of the GW report and what information the researchers have requested so far to carry out their independent report.
“They are still working on the report. The requested information will be reported at the end. They have been in communication with public agencies and are expected to contact professional organizations that were linked to the emergency response. They have requested documents and have interviewed government officials,” Álvarez Jaimes assured in writing.
Four days earlier, CB had submitted a request for information to the epidemiologist and director of the study, Dr. Carlos Santos Burgoa, to inquire about the progress of the research in collaboration with the School of Public Health of the University of Puerto Rico. It was not until Monday that the petition was referred to the director of communications of the Milken Institute, Kathleen Fackelmann.
In addition to the information published in various news media locally and internationally, an independent study conducted by the director of a program on estimates and projections at Penn State University, Dr. Alexis Santos Lozada, concluded that 1,085 people died directly or indirectly because of Hurricane Maria.
“The Department of Health of Puerto Rico and the Department of Public Safety have not provided preliminary figures to the undersigned about the deaths in Puerto Rico. In fact, the denial of the data has been such that to this day [Monday] the members of the Center for Investigative Journalism (CPI) are being heard before the court, since they initiated a legal process against the Department of Health and the Demographic Registry to be able to access the data on deaths in 2017,” stressed the applied demographer and population health scientist about his study published in April by the journal Health Affairs.
“The methodology used in the study of Health Affairs, and the study published in November via SocArXiv was the determination of historical ranges within what can be considered a ‘normal’ monthly death count. This was achieved by establishing the 95% confidence interval, that is, there would only be a 5% chance that a difference was due to chance. Deaths in excess of that historical range are then considered in excess and attributable to post-hurricane conditions,” said the doctor, who was contacted for the first time Monday at 5:12 p.m. to share his findings for the investigation commissioned by the government of Puerto Rico.
To complete his independent study, Santos Lozada said that although the Health Department initially answered all his requests for data, “there was a lot of resistance from the government and its officials” when he inquired more thoroughly about the information.
“In the first place, they did not clearly establish who was responsible for responding to the requests, and when they did, I was denied access to the data because I was doing research ‘for hurricane things.’ My objective has never been to attack the government, I have always wanted to help them, through my abilities, to help the people they serve,” said the demographer, who has nine scientific publications and collaborates as a statistical expert in research projects with the federal government, including the U.S. Defense and Energy departments.
“They [GW] could have a vision a little different from the way I did it because this study was done from the United States. At some point they insinuated they were going to do interviews, that they were going to do some field studies, that they were going to call people. I really do not know anything about what the George Washington University department is doing, so I would not know what methods they are using to do this,” he said.
Have you been called by GW to share your findings?
“I sent an email to the GW team in which I sent them a copy of the report and they confirmed that they received it but, apart from that, I have not had any communication with them,” said the expert. Minutes after the interview, Santos Lozada confirmed that he had been contacted 43 minutes before it was learned the GW researchers needed additional time.
“I recommend watching the press conference where it is explained that the first phase has a cost of $305,000 and to complete a next phase could reach $1 million, after completing the search of grants and/or donations to subsidize the rest will be worked on,” Rosselló’s press secretary told the media, after being questioned about the total cost of the study.
The following is the contract between George Washington University and Puerto Rico’s Forensic Sciences Bureau: