The Ministry of Tourism in the Dominican Republic said during a Friday press conference there is not an uptick in "mysterious" deaths following the recent deaths of Americans vacationing on the pristine Caribbean island.
Ministry of Tourism official Francisco Javier Garcia Fernandez called the recent events "heartbreaking" adding that "their hearts go out to all the victims and their families" but that the number of deaths is not an uptick in deaths, citing the U.S. Department of State.
Fernandez said that in the last three years there has been a reduction of 55 percent in the number of deaths of Americans in the Dominican Republic, including a 28 percent decrease from 2016 to 2018.
"The reports that some media outlets have categorized as an 'avalanche' of deaths of Americans is not reality," he said.
Fernandez said that it is important to stress that the deaths are not "mysterious," citing that they have been transparent with the autopsy findings and presented them to the families of the deceased.
"There is nothing to hide," he said.
Despite this assurance, some family members of the deceased have disputed the transparency of the investigation.
But Fernandez also said that the country is committed to providing a safe and secure experience to all tourists and will enforce safety measures "by continuing to better the safety standards for all our guests, bettering the protocols that have to do with emergency response" as well as taking a closer look at what is being served as drinks.
"Safety is something that will always continue to be evaluated," Fernandez said, adding that the "Dominican Republic is a safe place."
Additionally, Fernandez said the ministry will be working outside the Dominican Republic to clear up the "misunderstandings" surrounding the recent deaths and, subsequently, tourism to the country.
"We need to clear the reputation of the Dominican Republic," he said.
The news briefing, which initially had been expected Wednesday afternoon, offered a glimpse into where the now international probe stands and comes 48 hours after a New Jersey congressman sent a letter to the U.S. Department of State asking it reevaluate its travel advisory for the Dominican Republic in the wake of at least nine American deaths in 18 months.
Pallone, a Democrat who represents the Garden State's 6th District and has been in office since 1988, tweeted Wednesday evening that he had sent the State Department and FBI a letter earlier that day calling for a reassessment of the Dominican Republic's travel advisory — currently a Level 2 on a 1 to 4 scale.
"I'm extremely saddened by the deaths of 9 Americans in the Dominican Republic. One of the victims was from my district in New Jersey," he tweeted.
Pallone is referring to the most recent death of a U.S. tourist on vacation in the Dominican Republic — that of Avenel's Joseph Allen, a 55-year-old who died this month during his stay at the Terra Linda in Sosua.
As of Monday, at least nine Americans, including Allen, have died on Dominican Republic vacation since August 2018, all but three of those fatalities coming in the first six months of this year. And a third of the nine total deaths have been men and women from New York and New Jersey.
In his letter addressed to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and FBI Director Christopher Wray, Pallone said he was "writing today regarding the unexpected and highly suspicious deaths of at least nine American tourists in the Dominican Republic."
"Mr. Allen's shocking and unexpected death shares similar circumstances to the other deaths reported in the Dominican Republic," Pallone wrote. "I ask that you immediately take steps to update the bereaved families and ensure they are given all information on the cause of their loved one's death as the investigation continues. I also urge you to expedite a reassessment of the Travel Advisory for the Dominican Republic to make sure American travelers have a full understanding of travel risks."
The U.S. Department of State regularly updates its travel advisories for individual countries on a Level 1 to 4 scale, 4 being the most dangerous, on the basis of potential threats to international travelers. It last updated its one for the Dominican Republic on April 15. The country has a Level 2 rating, meaning exercise increased caution -- in this case, due to violent crime like armed robbery, homicide and sexual assault.
In a statement to NBC New York on Thursday, a State Department spokesperson said all congressional correspondence is carefully reviewed before an appropriate response is provided. The spokesperson said the agency was closely monitoring ongoing investigations by Dominican authorities into "several recent deaths" and offered its "sincerest condolences to the families for their losses."
"We have no higher priority than the safety and welfare of U.S. citizens abroad. Millions of Americans travel to the Dominican Republic every year," the statement continued. "While the overwhelming majority travel without incident, we want to assure all Americans that we continue to work actively with the Dominican authorities at the very highest levels to ensure that U.S. citizens are safe and feel safe while in the Dominican Republic."
The State Department previously said — and reiterated Thursday — that the recent deaths do not reflect an uptick, saying in a statement Tuesday, "Speaking generally, over 2.7 million U.S. citizens visit the Dominican Republic each year, and we have not seen an uptick in the number of U.S. citizen deaths reported to the Department."
U.S. TOURISTS WHO DIED OR FELL ILL ON VACATION
Allen was found dead in his hotel room June 13. Family says he had gone to the Dominican Republic to celebrate a friend's birthday. A preliminary autopsy report from the Dominican Republic indicated potential cardiac arrest; Allen's family, who says he had just passed a physical and was healthy when he went, is working to have his body returned to the United States for another autopsy.
During the press conference, Fernandez said that autopsy results indicated cardiac arrest.
Leyla Cox, a 53-year-old from Staten Island, also died at a resort this month; she had stayed at the Excellent Hotel in Punta Cana, where she had gone to celebrate her own birthday. She died a day after she turned 53. Fernandez said autopsy results indicate a heart attack and also cited cardiac issues she suffered that were revealed during the autopsy which indicated she suffered a previous heart attack.
In May, Nathaniel Holmes and his fiance Cynthia Day, of Maryland, died during their stay at the Grand Bahia Principe in La Romana. According to Fernandez, autopsy results list pulmonary edema and respiratory failure as the cause of death.
Miranda Schaup Werner, from Pennsylvania, died during her visit to the Luxury Bahia Principe in Bouganville, where another tourist, 58-year-old Myroslav Sparavalo, of New York, got sick during his vacation. In October, at the same Bouganville resort, Awilda Montes, of New York, also got sick. The U.S. Department of State confirmed Wednesday that the FBI is providing technical assistance to Dominican authorities with toxicology reports for Holmes, Day and Werner.
Fernandez said that Werner's autopsy results indicated a heart attack, pulmonary edema, respiratory failure. He said additional toxicology exams were requested in this case. The results are still pending.
Also among the dead over the last year: 67-year-old Robert Wallace, of California, who stayed at the Hard Rock Hotel and Casino in Punta Cana in April. During the press conference, Fernandez said autopsy results list Wallace's cause of death as septic shock, pneumonia and multiorgan failure. That same month, Colorado's Marylou Fox got sick at the same resort. The year before, in July, 45-year-old David Harrison, of Maryland, died on the property.
Ohioan Jerry Curran died in January while at the Dreams Resort in Punta Cana. In June 2018, Yvette Monique Sport, of Pennsylvania, died during a stay at the Grand Bahia Principe in Punta Cana, where Colorado couple Kaylynn Knull and her boyfriend Tom Schwander got sick around the same time. Six months before that, 38-year-old Susie Lauterborn and her 40-year-old husband Doug Hand, from Pennsylvania, had also gotten sick at the same Punta Cana resort.
During the press conference, Fernandez said that Sport's autopsy results lists the cause of death as cardiac arrest. Meanwhile Curran's autopsy results list his cause of death as pulmonary edemas, cerebral hypoxia, subdural hematomas and severe head trauma.
Then there's the Bronx's Terrence Richmond, who died after collapsing during a mountain excursion on Aug. 29, 2018 near Jarabacoa. Officials have said some of the deaths were thought to be related to natural causes like a heart attack.
That's what they told Richmond's mother, Annette Wedington.
Wedington said Wednesday she was told Richmond had been hiking and fell and had a heart attack.
"This is what they told me. And I did not buy that," she said. "He was healthy and I know that he didn't die from a heart attack. And all these other people coming about dying over there, and God is trying to tell us something — that something over there is not right."
The total of nine tourist deaths doesn't include the case of Queens couple Orlando Moore and his girlfriend Portia Ravanelle, who vanished on their way to the airport after a romantic Caribbean vacation and were later found dead. Authorities have said they were believed to have been killed in a car accident.