For decades, the Dominican Republic has been one of the most popular spots in the Caribbean for Americans to visit. Its proximity to the U.S. mainland, crystal clear waters, and an absolute glut of all-inclusive resorts have made it the obvious choice for millions of U.S. travelers — to the tune of 2.1 million visitors in 2017 alone. But a recent spate of mysterious tourist deaths on the island has would-be visitors rethinking whether it’s safe to go to the Dominican Republic.
There haven’t been any clear answers yet as to why these deaths have occurred and whether they are related. Toxicology reports are out in all cases (with the FBI helping). Meanwhile, Dominican officials insist it’s still safe to visit the island — but with at least seven deaths and dozens of cases of extreme illness on record, it makes sense for holidaymakers to be a little wary.
Here’s what we know so far.
What is going on in the Dominican Republic?
Since June 2018, there have been at least eight confirmed deaths (some news outlets are reporting as many as twelve) of American tourists in and around the Dominican Republic, and many of the details bear striking resemblances. Here’s who they were and what happened:
- June 2018: Yvette Monique Sport, a 51-year-old woman, died of a heart attack. Her sister, Felecia Nieves, told reporters that she had a drink at her hotel mini-bar, went to bed, and never woke up. She was staying at a Bahia Príncipe resort in Punta Cana.
- July 2018: David Harrison, a 45-year-old man, died of a heart attack. According to the Washington Post, he reportedly had “pulmonary edema, an accumulation of fluid in the lungs that can cause respiratory failure, and atherosclerosis” (a build-up of plaque in and on artery walls) at the time of death. He was staying at the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino Punta Cana.
- April 2019: Robert Wallace, a 67-year-old man, died three days after falling ill. He reportedly drank a scotch from his hotel mini-bar and immediately became sick. He was staying at the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino Punta Cana.
- May 25, 2019: Miranda Schaup-Werner, a 41-year-old woman, died of a heart attack. She drank something from the mini-bar, according to several reports, and almost immediately fell ill. She was staying at the Luxury Bahia Príncipe Bouganville.
- May 30, 2019: Nathaniel Edward Holmes, a 63-year-old man, and Cynthia Ann Day, a 49-year-old woman, both died of “respiratory failure and pulmonary edema” (fluid in the lungs). Day additionally had fluid around her brain. They were staying at the Grand Bahia Príncipe La Romana.
- June 10, 2019: Leyla Cox, a 53-year-old woman, died of a heart attack, according to her hotel. The hotel previously told CNN that she fell ill and had to be taken to the hospital but later reported that she died in her room. She was staying at Excellence Resorts in Punta Cana.
- June 13, 2019: Joseph Allen, a 55-year-old man, died in his room after complaining of a fever. He had take a physical right before departing on his vacation. He was staying at the Terra Linda Resort.
As these deaths have come to light, several people have also come forward to report similar experiences with extreme illness while they were in the Dominican Republic.
- June 2018: Kaylynn Knull and boyfriend Tom Schwander claim that they got violently ill during their stay in the Dominican Republic, experiencing headaches, “intense stomach cramping and diarrhea. She had blood in her stool. His eyes wouldn’t stop watering. They awoke to Schwander drooling a lot and a sweat-soaked bed.” The couple is reportedly suing their resort for $1M. They stayed at Grand Bahia Principe Hotel La Romana.
- April 2019: The Central Oklahoma Parrothead Association, a Jimmy Buffett fan club, reported that 47 members of a 114-person group trip to the Dominican got sick and started experiencing dizziness, vomiting, diarrhea, and headaches. A representative for the group, who was among those who fell ill, said that all those who got sick “either swam in one specific pool or drank at the swim-up bar.” Upon returning home, two members of the group tested positive for salmonella. The group stayed at Hotel Riu Palace Macao.
What do all of these incidents have in common?
Officials have stated several times that these deaths are not linked in any meaningful capacity. That said, there are multiple coincidences and connection points among the deaths.
- Four of those who died were staying at Bahia Príncipe resorts; the couple who reportedly fell violently ill but survived were also staying at a Bahia Príncipe resort.
- Four of the deaths were reportedly caused by heart attacks.
- Three of those who died had reportedly had a drink from the hotel minibar right before falling ill, and of those three deaths, two were chalked up to heart attacks.
- Three of the seven deaths cited pulmonary edema (fluid build-up in the lungs) as a partial cause of death.
- Most of the deceased numbered above were reportedly healthy prior to their vacations.
What is causing these deaths?
Yvette Monique Sport’s toxicology report has not been released yet, though it has been a year since she passed away, according to her sister, Felecia Nieves, raising the family’s suspicions about her cause of death. Nieves, told CBS News, “There is something … something dirty at the bottom of all of this. [My sister] was 51 years of age, relatively healthy, no reason for her to go on vacation and just die so suddenly.”
Though nothing has been confirmed as of yet, there are two main theories about what’s going on.
The first theory: pesticides.
This theory comes courtesy of the couple that is suing Bahia Príncipe. According to medical records they provided to CNN, Knull and Schwander “were examined by their respective family doctors who…suspected the couple had been exposed to organophosphates” — a kind of pesticide. This would track with Knull and Schwander’s experience at the resort: they apparently noticed gardeners spraying chemicals on the palms right next to their air conditioning unit, and they reported a pungent “chemical smell” to the hotel several times.
Pathologist Barbarajean Magnani, who chairs the toxicology committee for College of American Pathologists, told the Washington Post, “Poisoned patients complain of diarrhea, excessive secretions such as urine and tears, and respiratory arrest. […] The toxic insecticide ingredient can be inhaled, absorbed through the skin or be transmitted from contaminated hands into water and food products.” Most interestingly: organophosphates “have a particularly strong odor similar to garlic.”
Another expert corroborates Magnani’s assertions: according to the New York Times, director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security Tom Inglesby told the publication that many of the symptoms “like pulmonary edema, bleeding and vomiting blood, are ‘consistent with poisoning,’ perhaps accidental,” That said, it’s too early to tell — especially without toxicology reports.
The second theory: fake alcohol.
At least three of the deceased reportedly drank alcohol from their mini-bars just before dying, and according to the New York Post, officials are investigating whether or not bootleg booze is to blame. The FBI is involved in the investigation, and they’re taking blood samples from the recently deceased back to their U.S. research center.
According to the Post, one of their reporters “at one of the resorts noted the vodka in the room had a strange, potent smell resembling pure alcohol.”
Forensic science professor Lawrence Kobilinsky told the Post that some of the symptoms of the deceased were consistent with poisoning from either pesticides or methanol. He explained that bootleg alcohol “is usually methanol added to alcohol or just plain methanol, which is very, very toxic.”
For context: properly distilled alcohol is made with ethanol. According to DrinkAware,
“Commonly used substitutes for ethanol include chemicals used in cleaning fluids, nail polish remover and automobile screen wash, as well as methanol and isopropanol which are used in antifreeze and some fuels. These other types of alcohol can produce similar effects to ethanol in terms of making you feel tipsy. But they are also potentially very dangerous.
Drinking alcohol containing these chemicals can cause nausea and vomiting, abdominal pain, drowsiness and dizziness. It can also lead to kidney or liver problems and even coma.”
Widespread proliferation of fake alcohol isn’t unheard of, either: in April 2018, at least 86 people in Indonesia died as a result of consuming bootleg alcohol, according to CNN. In the instance of the Indonesian deaths, “Preliminary investigations suggested sellers were adding cough medicine and anti-mosquito lotion to the alcohol.”
I have plans to visit the Dominican Republic. Should I still go?
Inglesby told the New York Times, “It’s rare for travelers to die of unknown causes like this, and to have a high number of them in a relatively short period of time is alarming, shocking, sad. It’s something that investigators should be able to get to the bottom of.”
In other words: it’s okay to be worried. And ultimately, whether or not you should cancel your trip to the Dominican Republic is up to you. If you’re highly stressed out or worried, you should likely cancel or postpone your trip, as it’s likely you’ll just spend your trip worrying, and that basically defeats the purpose of a vacation.
That said, if you do still want to go, exercise caution. Peter Greenberg, travel editor at CBS News, says people “should ask several questions of a resort before traveling”:
- What kinds of chemicals do you use to clean your rooms?
- What kinds of chemicals/pesticides do you use in your gardens?
- How often are the mini-bars inspected and restocked?
- Can you assure me that the labels on the bottles match what’s inside?
Still, while caution is appropriate, excessive fearfulness and widespread panic are not. Keep in mind: disturbing as this story is, the Dominican Republic has over six million visitors per year, 2.1 million of whom are from the U.S., which means that, statistically, the outlook is still overwhelmingly positive.