(WSVN) - The U.S. on Tuesday passed another grim milestone: 800,000 COVID deaths. So many families over the last two years have been hurt financially by the sudden loss of loved ones. The federal government is offering free money to help, but 7 Investigates has learned many people still don’t know about it.

Saintena Leriche was the foundation of her family.

Beatrice Pierre, daughter: “She was happy, the happiest person ever. She loved life.”

A mother of four girls, she brought her children to South Florida from Haiti in the 1980s for a better life.

The 80-year-old matriarch had health problems but was fully vaccinated, so when she got COVID, her daughters were devastated.

Beatrice Pierre: “When my older sister called and she said, ‘Mommy has COVID,’ that was like the biggest shock of my life.”

Beatrice Pierre says their mom died 12 days later, on Aug. 24.

Beatrice Pierre: “It affected us hard, because nobody expects death, especially at a short notice.”

A sudden, unexpected death that also brought financial hardship for the sisters who quickly fell behind on their own bills while paying for their mom’s funeral.

Beatrice Pierre: “We had to leave bills behind or whatever it took. We had to deal with it later down the road, but the first thing was to bury my mom.”

But it turns out, families do not have to carry that financial burden alone. The federal government, through FEMA, will reimburse up to $9,000 in funeral expenses for COVID-related deaths that occurred after Jan. 20, 2020.

Karen Hensel: “You’ve never heard of it?”

Beatrice Pierre: “Never, never. The first time I’m hearing of that is from you.”

And they aren’t alone in not knowing.

Ed Michael Reggie, CEO of Funeralocity: “Which amazes me because, basically, the government is giving a $9,000 blank check.”

Ed Michael Reggie is the CEO of Funeralocity, a website that lets people compare prices and services of reputable funeral homes.

Ed Michael Reggie: “Funerals are typically the fifth most expensive item in someone’s life. Wedding, college, car, house, funeral, and it can be expensive and very hurtful to a family when you weren’t expecting this death as so many COVID deaths have been.”

In the U.S., more than 800,000 people have died from COVID, yet fewer than half of families have taken advantage of the FEMA program to reimburse them.

In Florida, the numbers are even lower. Of the 62,073 COVID deaths in the state, 25,424 of those eligible have applied for the money. That’s just 41%.

Beatrice Pierre: “The hospital didn’t say anything, the funeral home didn’t say anything, no one said anything, so I was not aware of it at all.”

Reggie says applying is quick and easy, with just two pieces of documentation required: the official death certificate and funeral receipts.

Ed Michael Reggie: “FEMA has done a decent job of getting the red tape out of it. It’s a 20-minute phone call, and you must make the call. You cannot apply online. No one is going to call you.”

And, if someone does call you out of the blue claiming to be FEMA or offering to help you with the process, hang up. It’s a scam. The only way to apply is by calling FEMA directly at 844-684-6333. The agency says it usually takes three to four weeks to receive the reimbursement check.

The Pierre sisters? Their application is already in progress.


FEMA COVID-19 Funeral Assistance

FEMA Funeral Assistance Frequently Asked Questions

FEMA Funeral Assistance Flyer


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