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Over 1 million calls inundated FEMA’s new COVID-19 funeral assistance hotline on first day

April 19, 2021

More than ne million callers dialed into the Federal Emergency Management Agency‘s new funeral assistance program hotline on its first day, April 12,  the agency told CNN—signalling an increased need for funeral aid as the nation’s coronavirus death toll continues to climb.

FEMA launched its funeral program for families who lost loved ones to COVID-19 after January 20, 2020. They are now able to apply for up to $9,000 in assistance per burial.

But the hotline’s rollout was marked by busy signals and “technical issues,” caused by the massive volume of calls.

A FEMA spokesperson told CNN Thursday that nearly one million calls came into the agency within the first 90 minutes after the phone lines opened.

On Capitol Hill Wednesday, FEMA acting Administrator Robert Fenton described the influx of calls to the agency’s hotline, pointing to “60,000 calls, 58,000 registrations. 1,700 have already come back with documentation. Hopefully we’ll start funding that next week.”

“That represents about 10% of the deaths so far,” Fenton said during a Senate subcommittee hearing on FEMA’s COVID response.

Fenton also acknowledged the hotline’s bumpy rollout, saying there “was definitely congestion on the line, and we had a couple of technical issues with the service.” But, he added, the agency “cleaned that up by the second day.”

While FEMA has aided families with disaster-related burial costs in the past, the COVID-19 effort is the largest of its type. Some $2 billion was allocated as part of the $900 billion relief deal Congress approved in December; while the Democrats’ $1.9 trillion package last month bolstered it by providing the agency with an additional $50 billion to use for coronavirus-related costs.

The program’s requirements include that the death certificate must indicate that the death was attributed to or likely caused by COVID-19 or coronavirus-like symptoms, and that the death occurred in the US or its territories. There is no deadline to apply for the funeral assistance, the agency has said.

Due to the sensitive nature of the program, FEMA decided to register applicants by phone rather than online. More than 5,000 agents have been contracted to take calls “with a commitment to spend as much time as is needed with each applicant,” the agency spokesperson said.

Fenton also emphasized the focus on empathy during these conversations, telling lawmakers: “We want to make sure that we empathetically and compassionately help everyone that had a loss.”

Asked about his most difficult challenge throughout his 25-year career, Fenton reflected on how the pandemic has had “the biggest impact I’ve ever seen” and the most deaths.

“What it’s done to our country. Shut down our economy. The impact it’s had. Far beyond physical damage that we traditionally see in other disasters. It’s just been far greater than any other disaster I’ve been to … I would put that up there with 9/11 and Katrina,” he said.

To apply for COVID-19 Funeral Assistance, go to this page on the FEMA website.

Research contact: @CNN