(Vanessa Serra Díaz)

The government's refusal to provide data on the deaths in Puerto Rico after Hurricane María began just after several demographers, with their own calculations, contradicted the official number of deaths associated with the cyclone.

Requests for preliminary data on deaths were ignored by government officials, which hindered the public analysis of the figures.

Demographer Alexis Santos Lozada, after insistently requesting the data, received an answer from the Demographic Registry in which he was informed that they were completing a "review and data quality " process to "avoid interpretations and hasty or erroneous conclusions that would confuse public opinion".

"I think they understood that it was not politically convenient for the people to know that there were more deaths than expected by that time," said demographer Raúl Figueroa.

By the end of November and beginning of December, the first unofficial estimates pointed out that, in the aftermath of Hurricanes Irma and María, up to 1,000 more deaths than usual were reported for that time of the year. This suggested that about 1,000 people died directly or indirectly due to the cyclone in Puerto Rico.

The official death toll reported due to the storm is 64. The George Washington University is reviewing that number at the request of the government of Puerto Rico.

"The process (of data review) takes time, but they could give preliminary data," said Figueroa. The publication of preliminary figures, while they complete the data reviewing process, is the usual practice of statistics authorities, he explained.

The Demographic Registry even ignored information requests made by the Puerto Rico Institute of Statistics, an entity that serves as a regulatory authority in data management in Puerto Rico. The situation reached the point that, on Thursday, the Institute sued the Demographic Registry in order to request access to data that, however, was being shared with the National Center for Health Statistics.

"Nobody really knows why there was no access to that data. Now they are trying is a footwork, saying they wanted to provide the information, but they were not providing it," said Dr. Antonio Fernós Sagebien, President of the Board of Directors of Puerto Rico Institute of Statistics

They claim Transparency

However, Wanda Llovet Díaz, Demographic Registry director, alleged that "public data on deaths was consistently provided according with the transparency public policy".

She said on Friday that there is personal information of the victims that can not be provided due to applicable provisions.

Still, many of the requests did not require personal information of the deceased, but the number of deaths. That information was not available to researchers or media, as verified by this newspaper.

"They also say they want to balance that before publishing. What happens is that people can not wait two years for the data to be checked," said Fernós Sagebien.

The scenario suddenly changed last Friday, after Governor Ricardo Rosselló Nevares, in an interview with CNN, was confronted by poor access to information on deaths. In the middle of the controversy that the subject generated, the Demographic Registry distributed a chart with monthly figures on deaths.

Data suggest that, between September and December 2017, 1,397 more people died compared to those same months in the previous year.

The issue resurfaced when a study conducted by Harvard University -in coordination with Puerto Rican academic institutions, such as Carlos Albizu University and Ponce School of Medicine- estimated in 4,645 the deaths occurred between September and December 2017. 

The study, based on surveys, has a wide confidence interval, so the number of deaths in that period can vary between 793 and 8,498 people.

Data from the Demographic Registry was not available to those researchers either.

"The estimate of 4,645 is high, but the study is honest. It is a validated methodology. A wide margin of error is implicit in this type of study. Therefore, minimum and maximum figures are established. Any intermediate value is possible. The study could be different, but apparently, they also had no access to the data," said Fernós Sagebien.

According to calculations based on the information provided on Friday by the Demographic Registry, in September 2017, 561 more people died than in the same month in 2016. This difference, for October, was 683 deaths, and for November, of 187 cases.

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