NEW YORK — For sisters Olga Rodriguez and Carmen Ruiz, who grew up in the Bronx, the emotional pain of losing their mother Rosa to COVID-19 is still raw.

“It’s a year and we’re still grieving,” Rodriguez said.

In fact, all three got COVID-19 last spring.

What You Need To Know

  • In mid-April, FEMA’s COVID-19 Funeral Assistance Program began accepting applications for up to $9,000 to cover funeral expenses

  • Among the qualifications to apply: submitting a death certificate that indicates it was caused by, “may have been caused by,” or “was likely a result of” COVID-19 or COVID-19-like symptoms

  • A Bronx family recently learned their mother’s death certificate listed “natural causes” as the cause of death despite testing positive for COVID-19 upon admission to an NYC hospital and receiving treatment for patients with COVID-19

  • Two options for fixing this include getting the cause of death changed on the death certificate, or by submitting “evidence” supporting a claim to FEMA

Ruiz and her mother were admitted to Mount Sinai Hospital on the Upper East Side at the same time in March 2020.

Rosa, who was 83 but in relatively good health before the coronavirus pandemic, never recovered and died on April 10.

“It wasn’t easy, because I couldn’t help her,” Ruiz said about being hospitalized with her mother. “I was sick and I couldn’t even get out of my bed to help her.”

What’s made the grieving process even more difficult was something Rodriguez discovered earlier this month when she went looking for her mother’s death certificate.

“When I looked at it, it said natural causes. I said, ‘What? Natural causes?’” Rodriguez recalled.

What’s listed as the cause of death for Rosa only matters because it determines whether or not they can apply for a federal COVID-19 Funeral Assistance Program.

In mid-April, FEMA’s COVID-19 Funeral Assistance Program began accepting applications for reimbursements of up to $9,000 to cover funeral expenses incurred by families who lost a loved one to COVID-19.

According to FEMA, those applying for the program must submit a death certificate that indicates the death was caused by, “may have been caused by” or “was likely a result of” COVID-19 or COVID-19-like symptoms.

FEMA officials said “Similar phrases that indicate a high likelihood of COVID-19 are considered sufficient attribution. The death certificate must have COVID-19 on it.”

Rodriguez said she went to her mother’s primary care doctor for answers on why natural causes would be listed as the cause of death.

“He said, ‘Because at that time it was so hectic and some doctors, they were so busy they were putting anything there,’” Rodriguez said of her conversation with the physician.

Rodriguez and Ruiz are not alone.

“We anticipate that needing to amend death certificates will not be uncommon for those who lost loved ones in February, March and early April, when testing was limited and our understanding of the virus was evolving,” said staff with Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s office.

That staff was among those in Congress who pushed for the aid to be included in the Coronavirus Response and Relief Supplemental Appropriations Act of 2021 and the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021.

NY1 spent several days looking into how Rodriguez could remedy the issue. Turns out, there are two possible solutions.

On the website for New York City’s Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, there is a direct link where families can apply for a change to a death certificate, but it can be hard to find.

FEMA also told NY1 that it would accept “evidence” in place of the required death certificate, but didn’t specify what proof of documentation was needed. It only said that applications would be handled on a case by case basis.

For Rodriguez, knowing that there is solution does offers some relief. She just has one piece of advice for other families who have a loved one pass away from COVID-19.

“Try looking through the death certificate, because I didn’t feel the need to look through it,” Rodriguez said. “I figured it was already there, so we put it away.”

Officials with Mount Sinai Hospital and staff with Ocasio-Cortez’s office offered to help Rodriguez and Ruiz navigate the process.


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