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Hurricane Maria kills 2,975; Puerto Rico updates official death toll

An estimated 2,975 people died in Puerto Rico in the five months after Hurricane Maria devastated the island last September, a far higher number than the government’s official death toll count of 64.

The new findings are from an independent study conducted by George Washington University’s Milken Institute of Public Health, which was commissioned by island officials for more than $300,000.

During a press conference on Tuesday afternoon, Puerto Rico Governor Ricardo Rosselló announced that his administration is updating its death toll count of 64 to match GWU’s 2, 975, “keeping in mind that it’s still an estimate.”

“The number of excess deaths is still very big and now, as a society, we need to come together and look forward to the future,” said Rosselló.

The Puerto Rican government said earlier this month that it was not updating its official death count until the findings were published.

According to the report, the number of excess deaths, which took place from September 2017 to February 2018, represent a 22 percent increase from what would have been expected during that time period.

This is not the first study that has tried to calculate the deaths following the storm; a Harvard University study out in May estimated that 4,645 more people died from Sept. 20 to Dec. 31, 2017, than in that same period in 2016.

However, GWU researchers said on Tuesday that their study is different in that it factored in the number of people who left the island right after the storm.

According to their calculations, they estimate that Puerto Rico saw an 8 percent drop in population after the hurricane, which triggered one of the longest power blackouts in history and pushed thousands of people to the mainland.

The study said that the risk of dying over this period was 60 percent higher among people living in the poorest municipalities and 35 percent higher among elderly men. During a call with reporters, researchers said that the elevated risk of death persisted beyond the five months that were studied for these two subgroups.

“We still don’t know when deaths came back to baseline,” Goldman said.

Rep. Nydia Velázquez, D-NY, who has introduced legislation that would set federal standards for measuring death tolls following disasters, said the findings are evidence of the “enormity of the tragedy that befell Puerto Rico.”

“These numbers are only the latest to underscore that the federal response to the hurricanes was disastrously inadequate and, as a result, thousands of our fellow American citizens lost their lives,” Velázquez said in a statement.

Enrique Fernández-Toledo, director of Puerto Rico Relief and Economic Policy at the Center for American Progress, also criticized island officials for taking so long to update their initial death toll of 64.

“According to this serious study, the actual death toll is more than 46 times that of the official count, placing it among the highest death counts caused by an Atlantic hurricane in the last 100 years,” said Fernández-Toledo in a statement.

GWU also makes a series of recommendations to help Puerto Rico effectively account for deaths during a disaster, such as providing doctors with the proper training and resources to issue death certificates based on the newest guidelines from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and improve interagency communication protocols.

Rosselló announced that the Puerto Rican government plans to create a committee, made up by local officials and “people from other sectors,” to find ways to implement the recommendations brought up in previous studies, including GWU’s.

He also plans to start a registry that keeps tabs of the most vulnerable populations in the island, such as people with disabilities, elders and those with severe medical conditions, so emergency responders are able to quickly and effectively locate people in need during a disaster.

The recent findings are just part of the first phase of what GWU expects to be a two-part investigation, in which they hope to interview families of victims who died during Maria’s aftermath, in an effort to identify how many of the 2,975 deaths can be attributed directly to the hurricane.

GWU researchers told reporters they don’t expect the 2,975 number to change during the next phase, “but it might get subdivided as to what situation caused certain deaths in the months after Maria.”

For the first part of the report published on Tuesday, GWU interviewed “key leaders,” including seven mayors and other officials from local agencies and FEMA.

Unlike previous studies on the matter, GWU’s has not yet been subjected to the rigorous process of being published in a peer-reviewed medical journal. Researchers at GWU told reporters on Tuesday the study is still in the process of submission.

Guatemalan mom says inadequate medical care in ICE custody led to toddler’s death

A toddler who came across the border with her mother seeking asylum died after receiving inadequate medical care in ICE custody, according to lawyers for the woman.

Yazmin Juárez came to the United States in March with her 18-month-old daughter Mariee. In May, the little girl died. The Guatemalan mother and her lawyers now plan to file several lawsuits alleging that negligence and inadequate medical care when they were held in detention led to the toddler’s death.

Juárez, 20, filed a notice of claim Tuesday against the city of Eloy, Arizona, which is the primary contractor of the facility 900 miles away in Dilley, Texas, under an unusual arrangement between Immigration and Customs Enforcement, Eloy and CoreCivic, the private company that runs the facility.

“Mariee’s tragic death resulted from the unsafe and unsanitary conditions in immigration detention at the South Texas Family Residential Center in Dilley, Texas, and the inadequate, substandard medical care Mariee received there,” Arnold & Porter, the law firm representing Juárez pro bono, said in the claim.

Juárez and Mariee were transferred to an Immigration and Customs Enforcement facility in Dilley on March 5, a few days after they crossed the border and requested asylum, according to a statement from the law firm. Mariee had no health problems at the time, according to the statement.

“Mariee was a completely normal, happy, healthy, beautiful little 18-month-old girl,” said R. Stanton Jones, a partner at the law firm. “She had never had any medical problems or chronic medical conditions of any kind.”

At the detention facility, Mariee became sick with a severe respiratory infection that went “woefully under-treated for nearly a month,” according to the law firm. Juárez continually sought attention from medical staff but she was prescribed medications that did not improve the child’s condition and Mariee continued to get worse, according to a timeline provided by the law firm.

“A mother lost her little girl because ICE and those running the Dilley immigration prison failed them inexcusably,” the law firm said.

Juárez took Mariee to see medical staff on March 11 and the little girl was diagnosed with an acute upper respiratory infection, according to the timeline. Over the next two weeks, Juárez brought Mariee back for treatment multiple times, with the little girl losing weight and suffering from high fevers, coughing, congestion, diarrhea and vomiting, according to the timeline.

Juárez told VICE News she was getting desperate and had her mother in New Jersey wire her money to buy tea and lemon for Mariee.

“I was desperate because of my daughter,” she said. “I would cry to my mother like crazy.”

Jones said during her stay, Mariee only saw a physician once, and at all the other visits she was tended to by physician’s assistants, a registered nurse and licensed vocational nurses.

A pediatrician who reviewed Mariee’s medical records said “this is way out of the norm of how we would treat a child.”

“If a child was having respiratory symptoms and fevers for more than five or six days, I would want to get a chest X-ray and see what’s going on in the lungs,” said Benard Dreyer, a pediatrician and past president of the American Academy of Pediatrics.

“They should have sent that child for an emergency room visit well before the child was discharged,” he said.

“Kids do die of pneumonia, but it’s very rare, especially if they’re hospitalized reasonably early,” Dreyer said.

Juárez and her daughter passed the first step in their asylum claim and were released from ICE detention on March 25 and put on a plane to Juárez’s mother’s house, according to the timeline. Juárez took Mariee to the hospital the next day and the little girl remained hospitalized at different locations for six weeks before dying on May 10.

“Mariee spent six weeks in essentially pediatric intensive care at three different hospitals because she needed increasingly specialized treatment,” Jones said. “There were extraordinary medical interventions undertaken after her release from Dilley but it was just too late.”

Dreyer said Mariee’s records showed that when she hospitalized she had multilobar pneumonia, meaning the infection had spread to more than one lobe in her lungs.

“That did not happen in 24 hours,” he said.

Jones said Juárez owes more than $2 million in hospital bills, and the costs are still arriving.

ICE declined to comment on the specifics of Mariee’s case, but said in a statement that it “takes very seriously the health, safety and welfare of those in our care.”

“ICE is committed to ensuring the welfare of all those in the agency’s custody, including providing access to necessary and appropriate medical care,” the agency said. “Comprehensive medical care is provided to all individuals in ICE custody.”

The agency added that it spends more than $250 million a year on health care services.

CoreCivic said in a statement that it had “deep sympathy for the family and the tragic loss of their child” and that ICE, not CoreCivic, provides health care services at its facilities.

Jones said he said he believed Mariee would still be alive if the two had not been detained at the facility.

“There’s no question in my mind,” he said. “It caused her death.”

Trump approval ‘remarkably stable’ after a stormy week of bad news

After a week that saw President Donald Trump’s former campaign chairman convicted on eight counts of fraud and his former lawyer plead guilty to felony campaign finance charges, the president’s job approval rating remains virtually unchanged, new polling from NBC News and The Wall Street Journal shows.

But the stability in Trump’s approval rating also comes as more than half of voters say he has not been honest and truthful regarding the ongoing investigation by special counsel Robert Mueller. And fewer than three-in-ten voters are convinced that Trump himself is not implicated in the wrongdoing of the six of his associates who have now either been convicted of crimes or have pleaded guilty.

Between Aug. 18 and Aug. 22 — the day after the news involving former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort and former Trump attorney Michael Cohen — the president’s approval rating stood at 46 percent approve, 51 percent disapprove.

In a separate NBC/WSJ survey, conducted Aug. 22 through Aug. 25, Trump’s approval rating was 44 percent approve and 52 percent disapprove. That’s within the poll’s margin of error.

Republican pollster Bill McInturff of Public Opinion Strategies, who conducted this survey with Democratic pollster Peter Hart and his team at Hart Research Associates, called Trump’s approval rating “remarkably stable” despite the Manafort and Cohen developments, both of which became public on the same afternoon last Tuesday.

Hart added that, for Democrats hoping to craft a midterm election strategy, the week’s news thus far “represents a fool’s-gold opportunity rather than a silver-bullet solution.”

NBC News and The Wall Street Journal originally planned to survey respondents from Saturday, Aug. 18 thru Wednesday, Aug. 22. But after the Aug. 21 conviction of Manafort on tax and fraud charges — and the news that Cohen is cooperating with federal prosecutors after his guilty plea— the news organizations took the unusual step of commissioning an additional poll of 600 respondents from Wednesday, Aug. 22 to Saturday, Aug. 25. That second poll included questions about Manafort and Cohen as well as a look at the president’s approval rating after the new developments.


Despite the durability of Trump’s approval even after one of the most dire weeks of his presidency, most voters are not convinced that Trump himself is completely insulated from the legal woes of his associates.

Asked if they believe that the six Trump associates who have pleaded guilty or been found guilty of crimes signals only that those individuals committed crimes or that Trump himself may have participated in wrongdoing, 27 percent cite just the individuals (not Trump), 40 percent say Trump may be involved with potential wrongdoing and 30 percent don’t know.

A majority of voters also say that Trump has not been honest and truthful when it comes to the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election. Twenty-one percent strongly agree that he has been honest and truthful, 17 percent agree somewhat, 10 percent disagree somewhat and a plurality — 46 percent — disagree strongly.

Inside those numbers, however, there’s some evidence that Republican defense of Trump’s truthfulness is relatively soft. Among Democrats, 81 percent strongly disagree that Trump has been honest. Among Republicans, just 46 percent strongly agree that he has been honest.

And just about half (53 percent) of Republicans say that the guilty pleas by Trump’s associates are limited only to those individuals and not the president, while a third — 35 percent — don’t know enough to say.

Among Democrats, 71 percent say that Trump may be implicated in wrongdoing.

The Manafort and the Cohen developments are also solidly on voters’ radar screens. Asked if they have heard about Paul Manafort being found guilty of multiple tax and bank fraud charges, 46 percent say they have heard a lot, 38 percent say they have heard some and 14 percent say they have not heard about it. Asked if they have heard about Michael Cohen pleading guilty to federal felony campaign finance charges, 46 percent say they have heard a lot, 34 percent say they have heard some, and 20 percent say they have not heard about it.

(That percentage makes Cohen and Manafort a big story, but not a huge one. For comparison, it’s about the same percentage overall (around 80 percent of Americans) who had heard about former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie’s Bridgegate scandal when it was receiving prominent news coverage, but a smaller share than had heard about the Access Hollywood tape (95 percent).


The earlier NBC/WSJ poll — conducted Aug. 18 through Aug. 22 — showed Democrats with an 8-point lead in congressional preference, with 50 percent of voters preferring a Democratic-controlled Congress and with 42 percent wanting Republicans in charge.

Last month, Democrats were ahead by 6 points on this question, 49 percent to 43 percent.

Voters were split on what concerns them more — Republicans not providing a check and balance on Trump if they control Congress (46 percent who say this), or Democrats going too far in obstructing the president if they’re in charge (45 percent).

They also were divided on what bothers them more — a Democratic candidate who supports House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi’s policies (47 percent), or a Republican candidate who supports Trump’s policies (45 percent).

And asked their opinions of Democrats winning control of the U.S. House of Representatives and U.S. Senate, 41 percent of voters said that would be a good thing, while 38 percent say it would be a bad thing.

Still, Democrats continue to enjoy an edge in enthusiasm: 63 percent of Democratic voters express a high level of interest in the upcoming elections — registering either a “9” or “10” on a 10-point scale — compared with 52 percent of GOP voters who do the same.

What’s more, 56 percent of Democratic voters believe November’s elections are more important to them than past congressional elections, versus just 38 percent of Republicans who think that.

“Democrats are going to win [House] seats in 2018,” says Democratic pollster Fred Yang of Hart Research Associates. “The question is: How many will that be?”

“The reason why the Democrats still have the upper hand is the enthusiasm issue,” Yang adds.


The NBC/WSJ survey conducted mostly before the Cohen-Manafort news also finds Republicans with a 14-point advantage in which party better deals with the economy — their biggest lead on this question in the poll’s history.

Forty-three percent of voters say the GOP better handles the economy, while 29 percent pick the Democrats.

Republicans also hold the edge on trade (R+8), taxes (R+5), guns (R+5) and changing how Washington works (R+4).

Democrats, meanwhile, have the advantages on the environment (D+38), health care (D+18), ethics in government (D+14), looking out for the middle class (D+12) and immigration (D+4).


Finally, the earlier NBC/WSJ poll shows 33 percent of voters supporting Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination to serve on the U.S. Supreme Court, versus 29 who oppose his nomination; 37 percent say they don’t know enough to have an opinion.

In July, it was 32 percent support, 26 percent oppose.

The earlier NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll surveyed 900 registered voters between Aug. 18-22, 2018. The margin of error is +/- 3.27 percent.

The second NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll surveyed 600 registered voters between Aug. 22-25, 2018. The margin of error is +/- 4.00 percent.

Mollie Tibbetts case: Undocumented immigrant charged with murder of missing Iowa student

Mollie Tibbetts, a University of Iowa student who was last seen during an evening jog a month ago, was believed to have been found dead and an undocumented immigrant has been charged with her murder, authorities said on Tuesday.

Cristhian Bahena Rivera, 24, was charged with first-degree murder, the Poweshiek County Sheriff’s Office said. Officials said a body had been found early Tuesday in a farm field southeast of Brooklyn, Iowa.

The identity of the body has not been confirmed, but it was believed to be Tibbetts.

“Our hearts go out to the Tibbetts family and to the Brooklyn community. It is a loss for all of us,” Poweshiek County Sheriff Tom Kriegel said in a news release.

Investigators said they used surveillance video to track down Rivera. The video showed Tibbetts, 20, jogging in a rural area near her hometown of Brooklyn, as well as Rivera’s car.

Officials believe Rivera is from Mexico and had seen Tibbetts jogging in the past, according to NBC affiliate KWWL.

A massive search had been underway for Tibbetts, who vanished on July 18 and whose disappearance sparked national attention.

Dozens of volunteers in the town of Brooklyn, Iowa, which has a population of about 1,500, had been searching fields around her house and the house where she was staying. Searches were also conducted by ground and air, and the use of K-9s.

Crime Stoppers of Central Iowa offered a reward of nearly $400,000 for any tip that led to her safe return.

The surrounding area had been covered with missing person posters, T-shirts and billboards pleading for help in finding the missing woman.

Police were also scanning Tibbetts’ digital footprint in an attempt to find her, Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation spokesman Mitch Mortvedt said last month. Tibbetts, an avid runner, often wore a Fitbit, according to her family.

Tibbetts’ boyfriend, Dalton Jack, said he received a Snapchat message from her the night she disappeared after she would have returned from her run. She was reported missing the following day after she failed to show up for work.

Jack is not a suspect in the investigation. He was working a construction job about 100 miles northeast in Dubuque when Tibbetts went missing.

“She’s not going to run off,” Jack said in an interview earlier this month. “I try not to speculate on it too much because the only thing that comes into your head whenever you’re not investigating all the facts is that something bad happened and you don’t, I personally don’t want to believe that.”

Tibbetts was staying at Jack’s home, where she was watching his dogs, at the time she went missing.