Ground zero heroes gain some pandemic ‘insurance’

Just before the U.S. marked the 19th anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the police officers, firefighters and construction workers who risked their lives and compromised their health toiling at ground zero won what could be called coronavirus insurance.

The 9/11 Victim Compensation Fund (VCF) last week amended the guidelines to make sure that if a worker dies of Covid-19 their kin will still be able to apply for compensation.

The change was posted on Sept. 9, said Nicole Navas Oxman, a spokeswoman for the Department of Justice.

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Covid-19 has killed nearly 200,000 people in the U.S. and sickened more than 6.6 million others, according to the latest NBC News tally. And it has led to the deaths of dozens of already-ailing 9/11 first responders and construction workers, their advocates said.

The guarantee that ground zero workers felled by the coronavirus can still apply for compensation appears in the frequently-asked-questions section of the fund’s website in response to the query, “If an individual with an eligible 9/11 illness passes away, and the death certificate lists Covid-19 as the cause of death, will this affect the VCF’s evaluation of a wrongful death claim filed on the victim’s behalf?”

“The answer on the posted FAQs wasn’t a change in policy,” Oxman said. “It was a clarification of how existing policy relating to how the VCF reviews death certificates applies in context of Covid.”

New York City attorney Michael Barasch, who represents some 20,000 people with ground zero-related illnesses, hailed the fund’s special master Rupa Bhattacharyya “for recognizing the tragically deadly impact of Covid-19 on first responders and survivors.

“She has agreed with our contention that if someone has an underlying 9/11 illness and dies of Covid-19, that she will recognize it as a 9/11-related death,” Barasch said in a statement to NBC News. “Too many families who fought through cancer or severe respiratory diseases have lost a parent or a child or a sister or a brother to this terrible global pandemic. With weakened immune systems and breathing problems, 9/11 community members are uniquely vulnerable.”

John Feal, a demolition supervisor at ground zero who runs the Fealgood Foundation, which advocates on behalf of the injured workers and first responders, agreed.

“The decision by the Special Master & the VCF to allow families of those lost to COVID-19 while battling serious 9/11 illness was not an easy decision,” Feal said in an email to NBC News. “And for that I personally thank Rupa & her team for showing empathy, sympathy and doing the morally correct thing to a shrinking fraternity of heroes.”

Barasch said more than 100 of the first responders and survivors he represents have been felled by the coronavirus.

Bhattacharyya’s clarification, Barasch said, “will provide peace of mind and financial security to hundreds — and God forbid thousands — of grieving 9/11 families who are now in the most difficult of situations.”

Asked if any compensation claims had been denied for anybody who was both a Covid-19 and ground zero victim, a spokesman for Barasch, Patrick Rheaume, said he wasn’t sure.

“My best guess is there hadn’t been time to adjudicate such claims yet,” Rheaume said in an email.

The VCF was created to compensate any person (or heir) who “suffered physical harm or was killed as a result of the terrorist-related aircraft crashes of September 11, 2001, or the debris removal efforts that took place in the immediate aftermath of those crashes.”

The original fund, which was in operation from 2001 to 2004, was reactivated by then-President Barack Obama in January 2011 when he signed the Zadroga Act. With more and more ailing workers and survivors coming forward with claims, it was reauthorized twice more — the final time by Trump in July 2019. That extended the deadline for filing new claims to October 2090 and “appropriates such funds as may be necessary to pay off all approved claims,” the fund’s website says.

The VCF site has also been translated into Mandarin, Polish and Spanish, which are the mother tongues of the dozens of other workers who spent months working in “the pit.”

Meanwhile, the country continues to grapple with the coronavirus crisis that is still claiming more than 800 lives a day and infecting thousands of Americans.

President Donald Trump, accused of lying to the American public about the severity of the pandemic and downplaying the danger, insisted Tuesday he actually “up-played it” and practically dared an already dis-believing country to agree.

But seven months ago, Trump was caught on tape privately telling reporter Bob Woodward that the coronavirus was “deadly stuff,” and now the U.S. leads the world in total numbers of deaths and confirmed cases.

The U.S. accounts for over a fifth of the world’s 936,156 fatalities and a fifth of the more than 29.6 million cases, according to the Johns Hopkins University Covid-19 dashboard.

In other coronavirus news:

  • While Trump has been promising that a Covid-19 vaccine is on the way, the head of the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention told a U.S. Senate committee that it will likely be next summer when it lands. And even then, CDC Director Robert Redfield said, face masks will offer more protection against the coronavirus than any vaccine. Why? Because the vaccine may only protect 50 percent of the people who are vaccinated. Meanwhile, Joe Biden scoffed at Trump’s repeated pledges to “produce a vaccine in record time.” “I trust vaccines, I trust scientists, but I don’t trust Donald Trump,” Biden said during a speech in his home state of Delaware.
  • With New York City bracing for billions of dollars in budget shortfalls because of the pandemic, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced that he and 400 members of his City Hall staff would take an unpaid, week-long furlough in the coming months. And it’s not just a gesture of solidarity with the rest of the beleaguered city. The move would reduce the city’s budget by 12 percent. “It’s painful for them and their families, but it’s the right thing to do,” de Blasio said Wednesday. The de Blasio administration “has been in secretive talks with labor leaders for weeks to identify other savings as well,” The New York Daily News reported. Among the ideas being considered is offering incentives for city workers to retire early. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced that the state’s new coronavirus infection rate had dipped below 1 percent but urged New Yorkers to remain vigilant. “There is no margin for error,” Cuomo said. “It’s going to take all of us to keep wearing our masks, washing our hands and remaining socially distant.” Back in March and April, New York was the nation’s hot spot and thousands died while public health officials tried to figure out how to contain the crisis. New York still leads the nation with 33,903 deaths — most of them from the start of the pandemic.

  • The Big Ten called an audible and announced it will play football this fall after all. The league, which includes college football powerhouses like Ohio State, Penn State and the University of Michigan, will be back on the field starting Oct. 23. Just a month ago, the schools agreed to push back the 2020 season because of the pandemic. Big Ten Commissioner Kevin Warren said the development of rapid testing technology has made it possible to resume play without endangering players. “This is a fluid situation, and we always wanted to make sure we put the health and safety of our student athletes at the forefront,” he said. Trump, who was furious when the Big Ten canceled play, applauded the league’s 180-degree turn and took some credit for the decision. “President Trump had nothing to do with our decision and did not impact the deliberations,” a Big Ten university president told NBC News. “In fact, when his name came up, it was a negative because no one wanted this to be political.”

  • The presidents of two historically Black colleges are leading the charge to get African-Americans, long suspicious of the medical establishment, to take part in the Covid-19 vaccination trials. Walter M. Kimbrough of Dillard University and C. Reynold Verret of Xavier University of Louisiana announced they have already walked the walk. “We’re protecting our communities,” Verret told NBC News. “It is important to have people like us in these trials. We all know someone who has passed or been hit with Covid-19. When a vaccine comes, we want it to be available and to work on our community.” But they immediately got pushback from critics. “Our children should not be used as Guinea pigs,” one Tweeted.