Using data from the first public release by the government of Puerto Rico of public mortality statistics since January, there were 1,244 more deaths in September and October 2017 when compared to the same two months in 2016. Last September, Puerto Rico was hit by two hurricanes—Irma on September 7 and María on September 20.
The following chart, released Friday night by the Puerto Rico’s Department of Health, shows the following: Total deaths in September of 2017 were 2,928. October of 2017 showed 3,040 deaths, for a total of 5,968 deaths. The same two months in 2016 have a total of 4,724—resulting in an excess of 1,244 deaths when compared to 2017.
When compared to November of 2016, November of 2017 had an excess of 190 deaths, putting the number of excess deaths in September, October and November of 2017 to 1,334, when compared to the same months in 2016. The data also confirmed that September and October of 207 were the two deadliest months in Puerto Rico since 2015.
It is important to note, as the Department of Health’s own chart says, that the data for 2017 is still preliminary, since the final numbers are going through the quality control process and validation. For example, the December 2017 numbers are not complete and they are expected to go up.
January 4 was the last date the Department of Health had released 2017 mortality statistics. Here is that chart:
A comparison between the January chart and the new June 1 chart shows that the number of deaths in September, October and November of 2017 continue to rise. September’s 2,904 figure in the older chart is now at 2,928 (+14), October showed 3,014 in the January chart and now shows 3,040 (+26) in the new chart. The November number of 2,548 is now at 2,671 (+123). Previous data releases in late 2017 showed lower tallies as well.
The June 1 release of new public data comes days after a Harvard School of Public Health study estimated that the number of excess hurricane-related deaths after Hurricane María from September 20, 2017 to December 31, 2017 was more than 70 times the government’s official’s count of 64.
A December 7 report from Puerto Rico’s Center for Investigative Journalism, in collaboration with Latino USA and Latino Rebels, said that nearly 1,000 people died in Puerto Rico the first 40 days after Hurricane María, when compared to the same period in 2016.
In a statement released with the data, the Department of Health did not mention the excess deaths or whether these excess deaths were related directly or indirectly to the Hurricane María. Instead, it clarified its position that it was denying access to this public data to researchers, journalists and the public. This is the full statement, which also tries to explain how death certificates are handled in Puerto Rico and why the general public does not have access to these death certificates, an issue now being contested in a lawsuit filed by Puerto Rico’s Center for Investigative Journalism and CNN (as well as the island’s Institute of Statistics):
June 1st, 2018
The Demographic Registry makes expressions regarding the compilation and publication of fatalities
San Juan, PR – The director of the Demographic Registry, Wanda Llovet, expressed that her agency followed the mandate given by Governor Ricardo Rosselló to be transparent with public information.
“The public information on fatalities was consistently provided in accordance with the public policy of transparency,” said the director.
“On January 22, Caroline Buckee of Harvard University requested official information about the fatalities and expressed interest in a meeting. On January 25, an official communication was sent to Mrs. Buckee in which she was informed that the information on fatalities in 2017 was being analyzed and reviewed to provide it officially and finally. She was also informed that this review process is a regular one of the government office that is done in coordination with the National Center for Health Statistics. Furthermore, she was informed of the availability of the data once the review process was completed. She was never denied access to it,” said Llovet.
The Demographic Registry reported that it has data available on fatalities and that it has been provided to the people and entities that have requested it, including the George Washington University, which is investigating the fatalities following the passage of Hurricane Maria at the request of Governor Rosselló. “We have provided the public information even when it was under the review process with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). By law and in protection of the right to privacy, not all data is public,” said the official.
Regarding the requirement of the Center for Investigative Journalism (CPI) on the death certificates of each person, the Puerto Rico’s Demographic Registry Law defines who are considered interested parties to receive a death certificate that will mean the registered, if it is eighteen (18) years of age or older, his father, his mother, his legal representative, legal custodian or guardian, or the heirs of the enrollee. In addition, any minor who in turn is the father or mother of a minor for whom the issuance of related is authorized for both his / her person or for his / her child or an interested party will also be indicated by Court order. The Law does not allow the sharing of death certificates with a person who do not demonstrate compliance with the requirements of the Law.
The statement was the result of mounting pressure for the government of Puerto Rico to release public data. In February, the Department of Health said that it could not authorize any release of public data, citing that it had to conduct more work on it. This was at around the same time that Governor Ricardo Rosselló announced a partnership with George Washington University to produce a more detailed report about the hurricane death count. That report, which was due in late May, will now be released in the summer. The Harvard study was released last Tuesday.