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New leptospirosis deaths recorded in Puerto Rico

Test results bring the total number of dead from letpspirosis to five as new suspected cases are sent to the CDC.
People fill containers with water funneled with pipes from a mountain stream in Utuado, Puerto Rico.
People fill containers with water funneled with pipes from a mountain stream in Utuado, Puerto Rico. 

The federal disaster response in Puerto Rico is now in its eighth week, and reporters have continued to question the official count of people who died as a result of Hurricane Maria. The official count has been under intense scrutiny since Buzzfeed reported last month that government officials, in the immediate aftermath of the storm, approved the cremation of 911 bodies, none of which were reflected in the official death toll. Those people were all judged to have died of natural causes having nothing to do with the storm, despite the fact that Puerto Rico’s medical examiner reviewed only medical records, not the bodies themselves.

Now the Associated Press reports that the average number of deaths each day in Puerto Rico rose sharply after the storm. From AP’s report:

The pace of deaths quickened on Puerto Rico immediately after Hurricane Maria — well beyond the numbers officially attributed to the storm.The U.S. territory reported an average of 82 deaths a day in the two weeks before Maria hit. That average increased to 117 from Sept. 20 to 30, though the rate has declined since then.

The AP also reports that the official death toll has inched up, from 54 to 55.

Here at the Rachel Maddow Show, we also have been chasing down data on one particular sliver of the official count: deaths from the water-borne illness leptospirosis. In the eight weeks since the storm hit, clean water has been so scarce that the 3.4 million Americans in Puerto Rico have been forced to drink from streams and rivers -- all of which can be a breeding ground for lepto.

As of last week, there were three confirmed deaths from lepto and 76 additional suspected cases. All 76 were sent to the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta for further testing to confirm the diagnosis. But we wanted to know whether the outstanding suspected cases were fatalities -- or whether those were living patients fighting the disease. The CDC sent us to Puerto Rico's Department of Health, which sent us to Puerto Rico's State Epidemiologist, Dr. Carmen Deseda. Last week, we reported that Dr. Deseda would not confirm whether those 70-plus patients with suspected cases of lepto were alive or dead. She said she could not release that information until the results came back from the CDC.

Those results have now come back, on a total of 99 suspected cases. Of those, 81 came back negative. Today, Dr. Deseda tells us the CDC identified 14 cases of lepto in patients who are alive and fighting the disease, plus two cases where the patient died. These two new deaths of lepto did not change the overall death toll; they had already been counted, but now we have an official ruling on the diagnosis. We now know they died of a disease that no one has to get, and that is generally treatable with basic antibiotics. With these two new confirmed diagnoses, the number of deaths from lepto stands at five.

In addition, Puerto Rico's state epidemiologist has identified 20 new suspected cases of lepto. Those have been sent to the CDC for testing. We will let you know when we learn the results.

Lisa Ferri, TRMS producer