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Hurricane María

Milken Institute to lead efforts to review death count related to Hurricane Maria in P.R.

From left: Gov. Rosselló, Lynn Goldman and Carlos Santos-Burgoa during a news conference at La Fortaleza.

More than five months after Hurricane María made its devastating landfall on Puerto Rico, Gov. Ricardo Rosselló announced that Milken Institute School of Public Health at the George Washington University will lead a study on the review of deaths associated with the deadly storm.

The Milken Institute School of Public Health at the George Washington University will be incorporated as a leader in the research process in an independent and objective way to review the protocol for counting deaths related to the weather phenomenon, he said.

The George Washington University will count on the collaboration of the Puerto Rico Demographic Registry, the Bureau of Forensic Sciences, as well as other institutions, including scientific institutions, that can provide information, resources, and relevant data for the review of deaths associated with Hurricane María.

The group does not include the Puerto Rico Institute of Statistics, although its Executive Director Mario Marazzi welcomed the announcement and made available to researchers its expertise and experience with the Puerto Rico Government’s Death Registry System.

“We think it’s great that the research team include not only experts from outside Puerto Rico, but also people with local knowledge and expertise,” Marazzi said.

“As is public knowledge, the Institute of Statistics has worked with the system in the past and thanks to our intervention, we were able to identify and correct problems by the Vital Statistics Registry in accounting deaths and classification of related causes,” he said.

“Our findings resulted in improvements in the quality of these statistics that have been recognized by the American Statistical Association,” Marazzi added.

The team of researchers will be led by its principal investigator and the director of the Global Health Policy Program of The George Washington University, doctor and epidemiologist Carlos Santos-Burgoa. George Washington is seeking an alliance with the School of Public Health of the University of Puerto Rico (UPR) to integrate local researchers into the study.

The Milken Institute School of Public Health at the George Washington University will analyze the deaths that occurred from the passage of Hurricane María through February, 2018. The methodology will seek to analyze all data available related to mortality, including death certificates, to determine how many more deaths than usual could be related to the hurricane.

Likewise, there will be an examination of the implementation of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines to identify mortality at times of disaster declaration and in the aftermath of the disaster; as well as a study of the implementation of communication protocols before, during, and after a disaster. Recommendations will be given that can improve processes in the face of disasters caused by future weather phenomena.

As provided in Executive Order 2018-001, a report will be presented with the findings of the results of said investigation.

“As I have reiterated since the passage of the hurricane and during the emergency, it is of great interest to the state to identify how many lives were lost due to the passage of María through the island,” Rosselló said.

“It is our interest that experts can identify as accurately as possible the deaths directly and indirectly associated with the hurricane to improve protocols for future natural disasters,” said Rosselló.

“Each life is important, and we recognize the sensitivity and responsibility with which this subject should be studied to avoid affecting the relatives and friends of the deceased,” he added.

“We’re confident that the Milken Institute School of Public Health at the George Washington University will be able to collaborate not only to improve the protocols on the Island, but also so that this study may serve as a model for other jurisdictions of the nation and the world exposed to emergency situations like those that Puerto Rico faced after the passage of Hurricane Maria,” Rosselló said.

Meanwhile, Héctor M. Pesquera, secretary of the Department of Public Safety, said his role will be to seek “integration and collaborative work among the entities and agencies involved so that the experts can carry out a broad and precise study on a matter of great importance for everyone in Puerto Rico and the nation.”

“We acknowledge that the Milken Institute School of Public Health at the George Washington University can make a great contribution to analyze the work done during the emergency of Hurricane María and establish recommendations for the processes and steps to be taken in future emergencies,” Pesquera said.

The dean of the Milken Institute School of Public Health at the George Washington University, Lynn Goldman, said “our school is honored to be working with Puerto Rico to produce a more reliable estimate of deaths directly and indirectly linked to Hurricane María.”

Goldman concluded by saying “It is with great responsibility that we take on this independent review as we know that Hurricane Maria has taken a terrible toll on the Puerto Rican people. Our hope is that the results of this analysis not only inform and speed the ongoing recovery, but also begin to lay the groundwork for preventing deaths as much as possible in future disasters in Puerto Rico and the nation.”

Both Goldman and Santos-Burgoa agreed it is challenging to identify all the possible associated deaths after an emergency due to a natural disaster.

Other jurisdictions that suffered the ravages of hurricanes like Katrina and Sandy have faced the same challenges. They think this study can help improve protocols in Puerto Rico and the other states of the nation.

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This story was written by our staff based on a press release.

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