By Jeniffer Wiscovitch Padilla, Centro de Periodismo Investigativo
SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico — A month after Gov. Pedro Pierluisi eliminated the key protection measures related to COVID-19, virus-related deaths in Puerto Rico saw a rebound that nearly reached the level of the highest peak of mortality of the entire pandemic.
The difference was that this time most of the people who died were significantly younger.
As opposed to the first peak of deaths related to the pandemic registered in December 2020 that was associated with older adults —when no one had completed the two doses of vaccines— in August 2021, deaths from COVID-19 among people aged 30 to 59 years old increased, despite the fact that more than 70 percent of the population eligible to be vaccinated already had both doses, according to data that the Centro de Periodismo Investigativo (CPI) analyzed. During last year’s peak, 72 people of these ages died compared to 104 during this year’s peak, which represents a 44 percent increase.
The analysis also reveals that during most of 2020 and 2021, Puerto Rico registered excess deaths, including those that occurred from causes that were not identified as COVID. Among the latter, there is a significant increase in deaths from mental health diseases, substance abuse, and conditions of the nervous system linked to memory, such as Alzheimer’s, which, according to the clinical experts interviewed, could be indirect consequences of strong social and economic disruptions caused by the pandemic.
The 30-59 age group accounted for 16 percent of COVID-19 deaths in December 2020, while in August 2021 it accounted for 35 percent. To date, August is the month with the highest total number of deaths this year with 296, according to data provided by the Puerto Rico Demographic Registry after a lawsuit filed for access to information. Likewise, the age group of 70 and over accounted for almost two-thirds of COVID-19-related deaths in December 2020. As of August 2021, the number was not even half of that.
The number is still preliminary, given that the Registry takes time to process data and, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), it may be missing up to 60 percent of the information for the disclosed period. The Demographic Registry provided the CPI with the mortality data from 2015 to August 2021. However, because it is incomplete, the data up to May 2021 were used for this analysis. With this limitation, the Department of Health reported 313 deaths by COVID in the August peak, while in the December 2020 peak —with the full data on hand— the Registry accrued 445 deaths from the virus.
Since Pierluisi took office in January, he eliminated and eased the protection measures to avoid contagions, including dismantling the municipal tracking system. In July, he ended the required use of masks for those vaccinated and the capacity restriction in closed facilities such as movie theaters, restaurants, and large concert halls.
He also delegated responsibility for the guidelines and recommendations on protection measures to Health Secretary Carlos Mellado. This announcement came as cases of the Delta variant began to spread throughout the United States. At the end of July, upon seeing a spike in cases, the government restored the mandatory use of masks in closed spaces regardless of whether the person is vaccinated or not.
The government of Puerto Rico had imposed new regulations to prevent contagion due to the appearance of the Omicron variant following the guidelines implemented by the United States at the time of publication. Puerto Rico has been a U.S. territory since 1898 and all federal laws are applicable on the island.