Islanders died of chronic conditions and covid-19 in 2022 at numbers that surpassed even Hurricane Maria’s toll

AGUAS BUENAS, Puerto Rico — In a purple house along a narrow road in Puerto Rico’s Central Mountain Range, Margarita Gómez Falcón’s breathing suddenly grew labored one March evening. She called an ambulance and began a grim two-hour wait for paramedics to arrive.

Health services across this self-governing island have been deteriorating for years, contributing to a surge in deaths that reached historic proportions in 2022, an investigation by The Washington Post and Puerto Rico’s Center for Investigative Journalism has found.

The case of Gómez Falcón, 67, underscores the many ways a faltering medical system has contributed to elevated death rates. She had struggled with kidney disease, covid-19, and breathing problems requiring the use of oxygen. But access to dialysis and other specialized medical care had dwindled, especially since Hurricane Maria devastated the island in 2017.

Aguas Buenas, a small, working-class town in the central highlands, had one working ambulance for its 25,000 people when Gómez Falcón called for help, so dispatchers sent a private one that had trouble finding her home in the town’s winding back roads. As her breathing slowed, her family members said, they gathered around her and prayed for paramedics to arrive in time. When they finally pulled up, she was already dead.

“At one point, she just leaned back, closed her eyes and she was gone,” said her sister, Carmen Gómez, 62.

Puerto Rico, with a population of 3.3 million people, experienced more than 35,400 deaths last year. That’s nearly 3,300 more than researchers would ordinarily expect based on historic patterns, according to a statistical analysis by The Post and Puerto Rico’s Center for Investigative Journalism (CPI).

This “excess mortality” — a term scientists use to describe unusually high death counts from natural disasters, disease outbreaks or other factors — resulted in part from a covid spike early last year that killed more than 2,300 people, health data shows.

Continue reading