GW’s Puerto Rico Hurricane María Death Count Study Won’t Be Available Until Summer

May 21, 2018
3:56 pm

Puerto Rico governor Ricardo Rosselló (center) at a February 22, 2018 press conference in San Juan, Puerto Rico. Dr. Lynn Goldman, dean of the Milken Institute School of Public Health, is to his left (Official photo from La Fortaleza)

Noting that the process has taken longer than planned, a spokesperson for George Washington University told Latino Rebels on Monday that the much-anticipated release of a report examining the death count in Puerto Rico after Hurricane María is expected to be now be made public sometime in the summer, instead of the scheduled late May release.

“As you know, the final report was originally scheduled to be released at the end of May,” a GW spokesperson said via email. “However, the research process was slowed by several factors, including the time it took the team to collect death certificates and other mortality data. In addition, the team had to establish a secure data warehouse for storing and managing all the data. The research process so far, including the paperwork related to contractual and data-use agreements, has taken longer than expected. The team expects to release a final report this summer.”

A public search of Puerto Rico’s public contracts showed that GW signed a contract with the island’s Forensic Sciences Department on May 16 for Professional Services (Confidential Investigative Services). The contract award was for $305,368. The contract is scheduled to expire on June 30 and does not have an automatic renewal.

On February 22, Puerto Rico governor Ricardo Rosselló announced that researchers at the Milken Institute School of Public Health at George Washington University would be producing a report about the island’s post-Hurricane María death count. According to the government of Puerto Rico, the official death count was 64, but data and reporting by Puerto Rico’s Center for Investigative Journalism (CPI) —in collaboration with Latino USA and Latino Rebels— showed that an excess of 1,000 deaths occurred in September and October of 2017, when compared to the same time period in 2016.

At the same February 22 press conference, when asked about whether the María-related death count was closer to the official count of 64 or nearer to 1,000, Dr. Lynn Goldman, dean of the Milken Institute School of Public Health, said researchers would have better answers in three months, confirming the speculation that the GW report would be made public in late May.

“In three months, we should be able to answer that question at the point in time. Is it closer to 60 or 1,000? In fact, we’ll be able to answer with more precision than that,” Goldman said on February 22.

In addition, a GW press release from February 22 stated that the study “will produce a report that the government of Puerto Rico can use to take stock of the disaster and begin to make improvements that will help better prepare the island for the coming hurricane season.”

Hurricane season officially begins on June 1.

In a May 20 ABC News report about the death count, Goldman did not address her three-month claim, and when Latino Rebels reached out to GW to schedule an interview with Goldman about her February 22 remarks, the same university spokesperson said via email that “the research team is not doing any interviews now, as they are busy analyzing the data.”

The February 22 press conference happened close to two months after Rosselló announced a death count working group through an executive order, when he had assigned Secretary of Public Safety Héctor Pesquera (the same person who has overseen the death recording process since María) to work with the island’s Demographic Registry and Bureau of Forensic Sciences with the goal of determining if a post-storm death was related to the hurricane or not. The order said that the working group must submit a report of its findings in 90 days.

That working group report was never with shared with the public, nor is there any indication that such a report was ever done. Any requests for mortality statistics to the island’s Department of Health get forwarded to the Secretary of Public Safety and the GW research team. Meanwhile, the CPI appeared in a courthouse on Monday as part of a lawsuit it filed earlier this year, requesting that the Demographic Registry provide the total number of 2017 deaths in an updated database, as well as detailed death certificate information since September 18, 2017, including burial and cremation requests to funeral homes and government agencies.

In November, the CPI published its first analysis of uncounted deaths, and on December 7, using public health data, it reported an excess of 1,000 deaths, when compared to the same time period in 2016. On December 8, The New York Times published its own analysis.

Emails to Rosselló’s press team and Department of Public Safety have gone unanswered, as of the time of this posting.

Alexis Santos, the Director of Applied Demography at Penn State, whose November 21 study concluded that the Hurricane María death count could be 10 times higher than then official government count, tweeted on Monday that he had shared his findings with the GW team, but noted that nobody on the team has directly engaged with him.

UPDATE, MAY 21, 6:14pm ET: Puerto Rico’s Department of Public Safety, which did not respond to email requests from Latino Rebels Monday morning for comment about the status of the death count study, tweeted the following press release, confirming that the study will be delayed, essentially confirming what a GW spokesperson told Latino Rebels.

On May 23, Caribbean Business reported a quote from Pesquera’s press officer about the delay:

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.

The Caribbean Business article also shared the contract between GW and the government of Puerto Rico. The date signed was May 14, 2018.

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Julio Ricardo Varela is founder and publisher of Latino Rebels, part of Futuro Media. He tweets from @julito77.

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