By DÁNICA COTO Associated Press
SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico (AP) — Puerto Rico announced Wednesday that it will broaden its classification of COVID-19 deaths to include suspected cases that were never confirmed, addressing a problem of undercounting also seen around the world.
The U.S. territory has faced heavy criticism for not implementing widespread testing and for relying on limited data to implement a strict curfew and to produce estimates of when the peak of coronavirus cases might occur.
Health Secretary Lorenzo González said doctors can classify a death as related to COVID-19 without having to wait for lab results.
“This way, we maintain uniformity with U.S. states… which will provide us with a more clear picture of how we compare with the U.S. mainland,” he said in a statement.
Spokesman Eric Perlloni told The Associated Press that previous deaths would be reviewed, but he did not provide details including how far back officials would go or who would be in charge of reviewing those cases.
Authorities in several countries have acknowledged that deaths from COVID-19 have been undercounted for lack of testing, a problem that has been noted especially in deaths at nursing homes in Europe. The issue is also sensitive in Puerto Rico, where officials eventually acknowledged that an estimated 2,975 people had died as a result of Hurricane Maria in 2017, vastly more than the low hundreds that were initially reported.
Puerto Rico’s government also has not shared data about how many patients have recovered, how many are in intensive care or how many health professionals have tested positive. Overall, Puerto Rico has reported at least 24 deaths and more than 600 confirmed cases, with only 6,000 people tested in a U.S. territory of 3.2 million.
The announcement was made hours after Puerto Rico Gov. Wanda Vázquez said she asked federal officials to ban all flights from U.S. cities with a high number of coronavirus cases to help prevent the spread of COVID-19 on the island.
The petition to the Federal Aviation Administration was made after authorities accused some visitors of taking medicine to lower their fevers to avoid being placed in quarantine by National Guard troops screening people at Puerto Rico’s main international airport.
At least two passengers from New York who lowered their fever with medication are now hospitalized in the island with COVID-19, said National Guard spokesman Lt. Col. Paul Dahlen.
“They themselves admitted it,” he said, adding that the two people called health authorities when their condition worsened and that one of them was placed on a ventilator.
Vázquez asked to ban flights from New York, Florida, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Connecticut and Illinois.
Joel Pizá, interim executive director of Puerto Rico’s Ports Authority, said in a statement that those flights would be rescheduled when there’s a drop in cases in those states.
It’s unclear how many flights would be affected if the FAA agrees to the temporary ban. A Ports Authority spokesman did not return a message for comment.
The FAA previously authorized a petition from the U.S. territory to allow the National Guard to screen passengers at Puerto Rico’s main international airport and agreed to reroute all commercial flights to that airport.
The National Guard has screened more than 52,000 people with the help of high-speed infrared cameras that set off an alarm if they detect a high temperature. More than 160 passengers were ordered to remain isolated for two weeks, although the government has no way of ensuring that they follow those instructions.
Puerto Ricans have been increasingly complaining about a high number of COVID-19 cases among tourists arriving from the U.S. who don’t adhere to the required two-week quarantine. One man was heavily criticized on Twitter after he posted that he was at the supermarket just days after arriving in Puerto Rico from New York.
The territory’s government imposed a curfew on March 15 that has shuttered all non-essential businesses and ordered people to stay in their home unless they have to buy food, medication or go to the bank. Hundreds have been cited for violating the curfew.