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9/11 Responders and Family Members Now Eligible for VCF Benefits for COVID-19-Related Deaths

October, 2020

With over 200,000 deaths reported nationwide, the COVID-19 pandemic has taken a significant human toll, particularly when those numbers are compared to 9/11’s death toll of just under 3,000. But the two tragedies cannot be viewed in isolation from each other; the long-term respiratory effects of exposure to the dust and toxins of 9/11 have rendered 9/11 survivors and first responders uniquely vulnerable to the effects of COVID-19. Until recently, the 9/11 Victim Compensation Fund (VCF) did not provide VCF benefits to the family members of those who died of COVID-19, but a recent rule change now makes them eligible. For more information about this change, please contact a 9/11 lawyer

9/11 Survivors and First Responders Are Vulnerable to COVID-19

Most individuals who are under the age of 65 and do not suffer from an underlying condition are at a low risk of developing serious complications or dying due to COVID-19. However, older individuals and those with certain underlying conditions are at a higher risk, as well as those who are exposed to the virus through their line of work, such as medical professionals, first responders, and essential workers. According to the CDC, individuals who suffer the following conditions are at an increased risk of developing a serious illness due to COVID-19: 

  • Cancer
  • Kidney disease
  • Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)
  • Certain heart conditions
  • Immunocompromised state due to organ transplants
  • Obesity
  • Smoking
  • Type 2 diabetes

Individuals suffering the below conditions may be at an increased risk: 

  • Asthma
  • Cerebrovascular disease
  • Cystic fibrosis
  • Hypertension
  • Immunocompromised state due to blood or bone marrow transplants, immune deficiencies, HIV, or use of immune weakening medications
  • Certain neurological conditions
  • Liver disease
  • Overweight
  • Pregnancy
  • Pulmonary fibrosis 
  • Thalassemia 
  • Type 1 diabetes 

9/11 survivors and first responders are at an increased risk of developing serious complications or dying from COVID-19 because many VCF covered conditions are also underlying conditions that can exacerbate COVID-19, including cancers, COPD, asthma, liver disease, and pulmonary fibrosis. While it is still early to estimate the full extent of COVID-19’s impact on the 9/11 community, evidence is mounting that the virus is indeed causing deaths. As of the date of publication, 1,185 first responders and 287 survivors are known to have tested positive for COVID-19. Of those, 197 have been hospitalized, while 44 have died. The true number is likely higher, however, as WTC Health Program data includes only individuals who were treated at a Clinical Center of Excellence or Nationwide Provider Network location. The data on deaths was based on individuals who either tested positive for COVID-19 or were presumed to be positive based on their symptoms at the time of death. 

Family Members of 9/11 Survivors and First Responders Who Die of COVID-19 Now Eligible for VCF Benefits

Perhaps in recognition of the link between 9/11-related illness and complications due to COVID-19, the VCF recently announced that family members of individuals with eligible 9/11-related conditions who pass away with COVID-19 listed as their cause of death will be eligible for wrongful death benefits in certain situations. The VCF requires that, in order to be eligible for compensation, the individual must have suffered physical harm or death due to the 9/11 terrorist attacks or debris removal in their aftermath. The VCF determines whether the death was caused by an eligible 9/11-related condition based on the cause of death on the victim’s death certificate. 

The standard death certificate includes three categories where causes of death can be listed: 

  1. Immediate cause of death
  2. Underlying causes of death (i.e., conditions that the immediate cause of death was due to or a consequence of)
  3. Significant conditions contributing to death

If a covered 9/11-related condition is listed in any of these three categories, the VCF will consider the death to have been caused by the covered condition and award wrongful death compensation to the victim’s survivors. For example, if the immediate cause of death is listed as COVID-19, but the underlying cause of death is listed as asthma, the VCF will award wrongful death compensation because asthma is an eligible condition. If a VCF-eligible condition is not listed on the victim’s death certificate, the VCF may still award compensation if medical evidence can show a connection and demonstrates how the VCF-eligible condition contributed to or resulted in death. Thus, under the new directive, the mere fact that an individual dies of COVID-19 on the surface does not stop the inquiry into whether their 9/11-related condition played a significant role in their death. For more information about proving how a 9/11-related condition contributed to a loved one’s death, please contact a 9/11 lawyer

How Does This Affect the Proposed Pandemic Heroes Compensation Act? 

The Pandemic Heroes Compensation Act is a proposed bill that would provide compensation for injuries to essential workers and their families. Specifically, the bill would: 

  • Establish a compensation fund for essential workers, personnel, and their families
  • Support essential workers affected by COVID-19
  • Authorize appropriated funds as needed for five years
  • Create a new website and office
  • Maximize compensation for essential workers and their families

The proposed text of the bill contains a “collateral compensation” clause that obligates the Special Master to reduce the amount of compensation a claimant would receive by the amount the claimant received from other sources due to COVID-19. It is too soon to state definitely whether this clause would apply to VCF benefits, but it could limit VCF claimants’ ability to obtain additional benefits if the bill were to pass. 

Contact a 9/11 Lawyer for More Information About COVID-19 and 9/11-Related Conditions 

If you or a family member is suffering from COVID-19 with an underlying 9/11-related condition, you may be eligible for VCF benefits. For more information, please contact a 9/11 lawyer at Pitta & Baione by using our online contact form or by calling us at 844-982-2667.