Puerto Rico Shifts Virus Death Count Rules, Seeks Flight Ban From Hotspots

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 under-counting also seen around the world.

The US 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 US states … which will provide us with a more clear picture of how we compare with the US mainland,” he said in a statement.

The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says it is acceptable to report COVID-19 on a death certificate without that confirmation if “circumstances are compelling within a reasonable degree of certainty.”

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 US.territory of 3.2 million.

The announcement was made hours after Puerto Rico Governor Wanda Vázquez said she asked federal officials to ban all flights from US 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.

Image credit: AP Photo/Carlos Giusti

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