Dead US Tourists 'Not Unusual' Says Dominican Republic Tourism Minister

Dead US Tourists 'Not Unusual' Says Dominican Republic Tourism Minister
Dominican Republic Tourism Minister Francisco Javier Garcia speaks at his office in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, on June 21, 2019. (Tatiana Fernandez/AP Photo)
Richard Szabo

A senior Dominican Republic official is playing down widespread news coverage of several U.S. citizens who died in the past six months while on vacation in the Caribbean nation.

Tourism Minister Francisco Javier García dismissed media reports that eight Americans died while vacationing in the Dominican Republic.

Dominican Republic officials claimed five of the deaths were from natural causes, and are confident the remainder still undergoing further toxicological analysis with assistance from the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) also died from natural causes.

The FBI is testing samples from at least one deceased couple's minibar, a Dominican Republic Ministry of Health spokesman told CNN.
An estimated 3.2 million U.S. tourists visited in 2018 and it is "not unusual for eight people to die while on vacation over any six-month period," the minister told The Associated Press.

He also indicated there has been no cover up and authorities want to find the truth of the matter.

“There is nothing to hide here,” García said. “We want the truth to prevail.”

The minister claims the eight deaths were not part of a mysterious wave of fatalities, rather a medically and statistically normal phenomenon that has been lumped together by the U.S. media.

However, a growing number of American tourists to the island have come forward since the deaths and complained they suffered from crippling stomach cramps, explosive diarrhea, and malaise that lasted so long they were still ill after they returned to the United States.

CNN confirmed more than 12 recent holiday makers have contacted Colorado couple Kaylynn Knull and Tom Schwander who shared their harrowing story of falling violently ill on television.

They described symptoms that might be diagnosed as severe reactions to food poisoning, a virus, or even a chemical contamination. They felt nauseous, sweaty, their eyes were teary, they had stomach pains, and they drooled uncontrollably.

After returning to the United States their doctors suspected possible poisoning from an ingredient used in pesticide, prompting the couple to launch legal action against the resort owners.

Other travelers told CNN they smelt an unusually powerful chemical odor in their hotel rooms before becoming unwell.

Northeastern Ontario resident Tina Hammell, 49, claimed she and her husband John stayed at the Grand Bahia Principe Punta Cana resort back in 2016. On the second day of their vacation they had a nap under the air conditioning unit after which the woman said she woke up and noticed there was a strong chemical smell in the hotel room.

"My throat and nose were on fire," she told CNN. "It smelled like paint."

Her husband recalled seeing the woman run outside and cough repeatedly.

"It stung bad," he said.

After they phoned the reception to complain about the smell a resort worker came to their room and sprayed what appeared to be disinfectant.

The couple asked for a different room and finally had enough sleep. However, Tina felt nauseous, sweaty, it was hard to breathe, and like she had lost her voice. They tried to go for a walk but she was too weak and began feeling chest pains and her body started convulsing.

"She kept passing out while I was trying to hold her," John said. "I said, 'You're not going to die. You're not going to die.'"

Finally resort management arranged for the ill woman to be transported to another part of the rest where the medical facility was open. The doctor revived Tina using a defibrillator.

However, another couple were not so fortunate. Edward Nathaniel Holmes, 63, and Cynthia Ann Day, 49, died on May 30 in their hotel room at the Grand Bahia Principe La Romana hotel.

García told CNN resort staff recovered an opioid and several medications inside the room for blood-pressure and inflammation.

Autopsies identified the cause of death was pulmonary edema, which happens when fluid in the lungs builds up and is often linked to heart disease.

Allentown, Pennsylvania resident Miranda Schaup-Werner, 41, died on May 25 at the Luxury Bahia Principe Bouganville hotel. A family spokesman told reporters the woman collapsed after having a drink from the minibar.

García told CNN an autopsy discovered Schaup-Werner had suffered a fatal heart attack.

One health professional is not convinced the causes of death were so simple and are accusing Dominican Republic authorities of being "very opaque."

“The longer they keep everybody in suspense, the worst it’s going to be for the Dominican Republic, especially when they’re so dependent on tourism," Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security Infectious Diseases and Critical Care Doctor Amesh Adalja told CNN. "Because the longer this goes on unexplained, the longer people are going to be leery of going there."

García would not provide the numbers or details of U.S. tourist deaths on the island and claimed the number had dropped 56 percent between the years 2016 and 2018. The U.S. State Department told CNN it had no reason to suspect a jump in the number of U.S. tourist deaths, saying the agency had not observed a soaring number of deaths.

Richard Szabo is an award-winning journalist with more than 12 years' experience in news writing at mainstream and niche media organizations. He has a specialty in business, tourism, hospitality, and healthcare reporting.