Hit by two hurricanes, the U.S. territory of Puerto Rico will be rebuilding for a long time. That’s on top of another natural disaster of sorts you probably remember hearing a lot about: the mosquito-carried Zika virus. Puerto Rico was considered ground zero for what some predicted would be a humanitarian crisis, sickening as many as one in five residents there. Today we investigate what really happened and was the hype really just a money grab?
Before this season's hurricanes, Puerto Rico's unspoiled beaches, and Caribbean crystal blue waters were drawing four million vacationers a year, including 1.5 million cruise ship passengers. But last year, a different sort of visitor threatened the eight billion dollar a year tourism industry: the mosquito-spread Zika virus. Projections were dire. In July of last year, CDC director Dr. Thomas Frieden called Puerto Rico's Zika epidemic horrifying. He warned it could affect 10,000 pregnant Puerto Rican women in 2016 alone, causing catastrophic birth defects in hundreds of babies. Fortunately, that's not what happened.
Dr. Alberto de la Vega: We may only have had something between 30 and 40 cases of Zika related illnesses, but what we have had to do to detect those cases and manage them has a really taxed our health services.
Dr. Alberto de la Vega leads the unit at the University of Puerto Rico School of Medicine that's dealing with the most Zika related pregnancies.
Dr. Alberto de la Vega: In our experience, we've had a two percent incidence in anomalies related to Zika in patients who had been pregnant.
The vast majority of people who get Zika have no symptoms at all. In Dr. de la Vega's unit, 98 percent of babies born to women infected while pregnant were born healthy. But when there are brain deformities, like in this little one, they're extremely serious. Just not nearly as frequent as CDC feared. And that's not the only prediction that missed the mark.
Rick Newman: Morning, Bueno Dias.
Rick Newman owns the Verdanza hotel in San Juan.
Rick Newman: In the original estimate, CDC claimed that there would be 700,000 people affected by the Zika in Puerto Rico, and that's really what created the initial panic.
Sharyl Attkisson: That's pretty scary.
Rick Newman: That is a scary number, to the point where it actually became sort of a farce in terms of the fact that it was an unbelievable number when you consider we just have 3.5 million. It's almost a very high percentage of our population.
He says the CDC estimates led to panic.
Rick Newman: January and February of 2016 were very good, and then all of the sudden Major League Baseball canceled their exhibition games in Puerto Rico and claimed it was because of the Zika virus that supposedly was affecting us. And so that became an unraveling of our tourism industry, and our booking pace that was moving so positively started to unravel.
Sharyl Attkisson: I think CDC predicted something like 700,000 supposedly serious cases in an epidemic here. Did that materialize?
Governor Ricardo Rossello: Not at all.
When we met with Puerto Rico Governor Ricardo Rossello, who was elected last November, he gave a shocking take on the Zika hype.
Governor Ricardo Rosello: If we were have a humanitarian crisis, I would be the first one to be arguing about that. The reality is that that narrative was certainly overblown.
Rossello told us that narrative had something to do with the serious fiscal crisis Puerto Rico has been fighting in recent years. Some saw Zika, he says, as a way to get precious funds from US taxpayers. If that was the goal, it worked. Of 1.6 billion tax dollars the US devoted to the Zika fight, the CDC says more than 47 million dollars was sent to Puerto Rico.
Governor Ricardo Rossello: I think it was a narrative that was trying to build up also, that we can get some additional funding for Puerto Rico. The reality is, I think it came back to bite us, because if you establish that narrative and
Sharyl Attkisson: You lost tourism.
Governor Ricardo Rossello: We lost tourism.
In all, it's estimated Puerto Rico lost 100 million dollars in hotel room revenue in 2016 due to the Zika scare. Another 100 million when you factor in lost food, beverage, and excursions. Rodrigo Masses leads a nonprofit association of Puerto Rico's manufacturers and service industries.
Rodrigo Masses: I personally don't know anyone with Zika. And I don't know anyone who knows somebody with Zika. So, we believe that the propaganda was extremely, extremely damaging, and create hundreds of millions of dollars of loss, last year.
Taxi driver Josua De Diego is one of the many who felt the pain.
Josua De Diego: If you have a bad economy, then you create a crisis that affects the only thing that's working on the island so it's not very intelligent.
Sharyl Attkisson: CDC declined our requests for an on-camera interview to talk about why its projections were so far off and other Zika related issues. An agency spokesman issued a statement saying in part: Mosquito-borne disease outbreaks are difficult to predict and It is too soon to assess the final accuracy of the modeling estimates for Puerto Rico or the effectiveness of prevention efforts. Just this past spring, Puerto Rico declared its Zika crisis over. CDC and some US doctors are still warning pregnant women to stay away.
Tourist: We're here for my brother in law's wedding and my wife and my sister-in-law did not travel here because they're both trying to get pregnant and were fearful of the Zika virus.
Sharyl Attkisson: Do you think the Zika crisis is over?
Rick Newman: I believe it's over. I think it was over before it really started.
Sharyl Attkisson: We have talked to those in the tourism industry and just ordinary people who feel like this whole thing was really overblown.
Dr. Alberto de la Vega: It wasn't. It wasn't overblown. I can show you patients whose kids were born with Zika and they'll have to live with that forever. And to them, this was under-blown.
Puerto Rico did not provide an accounting when we asked how it spent the Zika millions provided by US taxpayers.