Coronavirus in Chile

The Last Straw: The Report That Brought Mañalich Down

SANTIAGO – Former Health Minister Jaime Mañalich was already in the eye of the storm when investigative platform CIPER released its report on June 12. But the conclusion, showing that the Health Ministry is reporting a different, higher number of Covid-19 deaths to the World Health Organization than the number reported to the public in daily pressers was definitely the last straw that broke the camel’s back. Coincidence or not, new minister Enrique Paris has, as his first official act, announced a change to the ministry’s methodology for counting deaths yet again.

Since the beginning of the coronavirus outbreak in Chile, the Chilean Health Ministry has reported Covid-19 deaths to the World Health Organizations (WHO) following WHO’s guidelines. This means the ministry includes not only those who died and tested positive, but also those whose deaths were suspected to be due to Covid-19. People whose deaths can be attributed to the virus are also included.

This is in sharp contrast to the numbers the Health Ministry has been publishing at their daily pressers. The number of deaths presented during the pressers has been limited to those who actually tested positive, meaning the Health Ministry reports a lower number to its public than it does to the WHO. These findings were published in a report by investigative platform CIPER on Friday, June 12.

Nearly Twice the “Official” Number

The Department of Statistics (DEIS) at the Health Ministry follows the official WHO criteria, counting manually – as recommended by WHO – and combining all Covid-19 related death entries in the Civil Registry (tested, suspected, or related) in its daily updated numbers – numbers that according to CIPER are directly sent to the Health Minister himself (formerly Jaime Mañalich) and Undersecretaries Paula Daza and Arturo Zúñiga.

CIPER spoke with experts working at the DEIS, who told the platform that according to their methodology the number of deaths in Chile exceeded 5,000 on Friday, when the Health Ministry that same day reported a total death count of just 2,870. In other words, the number reported to WHO is nearly twice the number the Health Ministry tells Chile. Several experts had for weeks been questioning the low death rate in Chile, forcing the Health Ministry to change its methodology for counting Covid-19 deaths several times.

On June 1, former Minister Jaime Mañalich announced that decedents with a pending PCR test would be included in the death count, causing the number to rise exponentially. Several days later, however, the Ministry of Health inexplicably returned to the methodology used before.

The publication by CIPER was probably the straw that broke the camel’s back for the already heavily criticized Mañalich. On Saturday morning, shortly after the daily presser, La Moneda palace reported that Mañalich would be replaced by Enrique Paris as new Health Minister.

Piñera’s Forced About-Face

Health Ministry Changes Again

That same day, the Ministry of Health was forced to respond to the publication by CIPER. In the afternoon, the Health Ministry took to Twitter to provide additional information about its methodology. “The WHO requests information from country liaison offices, for epidemiological surveillance purposes only, on suspected, probable, deaths with and without laboratory confirmation of COVID-19. Chile sends this weekly,” the ministry wrote. “The World Health Organization does not publish these records, but they are used exclusively for epidemiological surveillance. Subsequently, DEIS must validate this information, particularly the final causes of death.”

According to the ministry, the statistics department “performs an intentional search within the total number of deaths registered in the Civil Registry, which, without meeting the confirmatory criteria, could be related to COVID-19.”

“This search requires a detailed review of medical death certificates and other data sources, to establish with greater certainty the cause of death, a process that takes time. These deaths are classified as probable deaths from COVID-19. Once the analysis of this group of deaths is completed, DEIS confirms or rectifies the information provided, which is not linked to today’s epidemiological report. It is information that will be available later, in the framework of mortality statistics.”

The controversy about the methodology used by Chile for the official reports, however, seemed to have convinced new Minister Paris. On Sunday, June 14, he announced at his first daily presser that the ministry would soon begin to include the people who probably died due to Covid-19 – as per WHO guidelines and as already included in the DEIS reports. Thus, with the pandemic in Chile far from over and the ministry counting according to WHO recommendations, the death rate in Chile is expected to increase even more over the next days.

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