Michael Sainato in Orlando, Florida
Facing massive medical and funeral bills, families, some of whom are out of work, are seeking help through fundraisers
On the morning of 19 August, 74-year-old Miguel Ramos passed away while hospitalized for Covid-19 in Orlando, Florida. His wife, Leticia, also tested positive and is currently fighting to recover.
Facing thousands of dollars in funeral and medical expenses, their daughter Nohemi Ramos started a GoFundMe to try to raise money to cover some of the costs.
The Ramos family is one of thousands around the US who are struggling to pay funeral, medical and other expenses incurred as a result of losing a loved one to coronavirus, with many families turning to online fundraising tools like GoFundMe for help.
“My parents are senior citizens living on fixed income and hadn’t made any pre-arrangements of any sorts,” said Nohemi Ramos. “Besides the economic impact, it’s been so hard for all my family since he was isolated in the hospital, connected to a ventilator, and since my mom is Covid-19-positive too, we can’t even grieve as a family.”
Though federal legislation was passed to ensure coronavirus medical costs are completely covered by insurance companies or the government for the uninsured, people have still received huge medical bills for coronavirus related hospital stays. And other expenses, such as funeral costs, aren’t currently covered.
At least 30 states and territories, along with Democratic members of Congress have urged the Trump administration to authorize the Federal Emergency Management Agency (Fema) to reimburse funeral expenses for coronavirus victims. But Trump has yet to do so, leaving families to seek relief elsewhere, often through online fundraisers and donations from family, friends, co-workers or local community organizations.
More than 170,000 Americans have died from coronavirus since the pandemic began in the US, with official tallies undercounted due to limited testing availability. The Latinx and African American communities have been hit disproportionately hard by the disease and by its economic fallout. The median cost of a funeral in the US last year was $7,640 but can be far higher depending on the type of service and where someone lives – it’s a high price for many even in better times.
Liz King found out her mother, 69-year-old Loretta King of Newton, Massachusetts, died from coronavirus on 14 April. She hadn’t been able to see her for weeks, as her mother was in a rehabilitation center recovering from surgery after breaking both her legs and ankle in January 2020. The rehab she was staying in had several cases of coronavirus and her mother eventually tested positive and her symptoms worsened.
“She wasn’t able to talk or swallow, so we couldn’t talk to her on the phone,” said Liz King. “I called up for an update on her like I always did and the nurse said ‘sorry to tell you but she passed away.’ If I didn’t call I don’t know how long they would have taken for us to find out. We are all devastated about the news as she was only 69 years old. She was a strong woman and would do anything for anyone.”
The family struggled to afford the funeral expenses, in addition to a medical bill they received for over $14,000. Her father is retired and relies solely on social security. King herself is currently unemployed from her job in sales due to the economic shutdown to stop the spread of the coronavirus.
Alyssa Brown started a GoFundMe after her 63-year-old grandmother, Irma, passed away due to coronavirus on 14 August outside of Los Angeles, California, to help her aunt cover the funeral expenses.
“We have an irresponsible president who has led a bunch of people to believe coronavirus isn’t as big of a deal as it is and my uncle is one of those people. He voted for Trump, believes in Trump and believed he would be protected by the blood of Christ from this pandemic, those are his words. He ended up infecting my grandmother because of his ignorance,” said Brown. “Unfortunately my grandma didn’t make it.”
She explained most of her family members have been out of work due to the pandemic and there’s no relief of any kind from the government to help support families experiencing costs related to losing a loved one to coronavirus.
We would have been able to cover the costs if we were working, but since everyone got sick at home, no one was able to work and bills kept coming. Arturo Acosta
“We weren’t able to say goodbye to my grandma in person, which was hard because we weren’t on good terms with her. We love her with all of our hearts, but unfortunately because of religion, my lifestyle being gay wasn’t really accepted and we never got the opportunity to fix our relationship before she died,” added Brown.
On 4 August, Aurelia Vazquez, 56, passed away at a hospital in Galveston, Texas, after contracting coronavirus. Her son and husband also tested positive, but recovered. Her son, Arturo Acosta, turned to GoFundMe to try to offset the funeral costs.
“We were able to cover the costs of $6,500 because we had to cremate her,” said Acosta. He explained the family initially wanted to send Vazquez to her home in Mexico, which would have cost $8,000, but Mexico was not accepting bodies, so they opted for cremation, which was more affordable than a burial.
“She was a hardworking, caring, loving person that didn’t deserve what happened to her, dying alone with no one beside her. I’m sure many families are losing loved ones this way and this is not OK. I hate hearing people say it’s like the flu. It’s not. She had the flu before and it was nothing like coronavirus.”
They were able to cover the cremation costs with help from GoFundMe donations, direct donations from family and friends and family selling food plates to help raise funds, but they still are unsure if or how much in medical expenses the family will be faced with.
“We would have been able to cover the costs if we were working, but since everyone got sick at home, no one was able to work and bills kept coming,” added Acosta.