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FEMA funeral assistance tops $1 billion to families of COVID-19 victims

EL CAJON, CALIFORNIA - JANUARY 15: (EDITORIAL USE ONLY) Embalmer and funeral director Kristy Oliver (R) and funeral attendant Sam Deras load the casket of a person who died after contracting COVID-19 into a hearse at East County Mortuary on January 15, 2021 in El Cajon, California. The mortuary on average was handling about 50 bodies per month but owner Robert Zakar believes they may process closer to 100 in January as California continues to see a spike in coronavirus deaths. The mortuary holds the bodies of those who pass away due to COVID-19 for a minimum of three days before they are processed along with various other COVID-related safety measures. (Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images)

(CNN) — The Federal Emergency Management Agency’s funeral assistance program has distributed more than $1 billion to those who have lost loved ones to Covid-19 since the application process began in mid-April, the agency announced Friday.

Matthew Redding, deputy director of FEMA’s Individual Assistance division, noted the “very somber milestone” during a call with reporters Friday morning.

“FEMA does have a history of supporting post-disaster recovery with regard to funerals, but never on a scale like this,” Redding said.

More than 150,000 people nationwide have been helped so far by the funeral assistance program, which Congress established as part of its coronavirus relief legislation.

The reimbursement covers the transfer of remains, burial plot, casket, clergy services, cremation and headstone, among other expenses, for deaths that occurred in the US. The maximum amount is $9,000 for each loved one who passed away, with a $35,500 limit per applicant who incurred costs for multiple victims.

There are roughly 90,000 pending applications for assistance, Redding explained, with about half having submitted little to no documents and the other half that FEMA is “actively” working with to complete their applications. It is contacting those with open cases through email, text messages, mail and phone calls.

Applicants, who must call a FEMA hotline to begin the application process, take about 20 days to send in the documentation, which includes a death certificate and receipts for funeral costs, Redding said. FEMA spends about 33 days, on average, to review and determinate eligibility.

The program had a bumpy start, with many applicants initially having trouble getting through to the agency to apply and receiving little communication about the status of their applications once they submitted their paperwork.

While FEMA has aided families with disaster-related burial costs in the past, the Covid-19 effort is the largest of its type. Previously, the agency’s largest funeral assistance effort involved about 2,400 applications, Redding said. Over the past decade, FEMA has provided a total of only $11 million in this type of aid.

Some $2 billion was allocated as part of the $900 billion relief deal Congress approved in December, while the Democrats’ $1.9 trillion package in March bolstered the program by providing the agency with an additional $50 billion to use for coronavirus-related costs.

Redding also noted there is currently no projected end date for the funeral assistance program, adding, “FEMA has sufficient resources to continue this mission as the nation continues to grapple with so much loss.”

The agency is working with partners in the funeral industry, medical community, state and local governments, faith-based organizations and community volunteer programs to spread the word of the funeral assistance program to those communities disproportionately affected by the coronavirus. The median income of applicants is about $40,000.

Nearly 620,000 people have died from Covid-19 in the US.