By Scott M. Stringer, New York City Comptroller
By all accounts, Sandra Santos-Vizcaino was an amazing teacher — a gentle soul who was as gifted at unlocking the mysteries of learning as she was at dispensing hugs to her students at P.S. 9 in Brooklyn Heights.
But Santos-Vizcaino is no longer with us. She succumbed to COVID-19, having dutifully gone to school up until March 19, the final day of professional development before schools were shut down by Mayor de Blasio. She was hospitalized on the 26th and passed away five days later, leaving behind her husband, Felix, and two children, Victor-Luis and Viviana.
It’s impossible to fully repay Santos-Vizcaino or her family for her 25 years of service she gave to our children, or the scores of other frontline workers across the nation who — simply by following orders and going to work — exposed themselves to heightened risk of infection.
But there is one, critical step that we as a nation should take: Congress should create a Victim Compensation Fund to help the surviving family members of all frontline workers who went to work — caring for our sick, teaching our children, stocking our grocery shelves, staffing our pharmacies, performing essential government services — and died from COVID-19.
In the aftermath of the Twin Tower attacks in 2001, Congress established the 9/11 Victim Compensation Fund, which over two years dispensed some $7 billion to the families of those killed and injured. The fund was later reopened by President Obama (thanks in large part to the fierce advocacy of this newspaper) as part of the James Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation Act, which expanded health coverage and compensation to first responders and others who had developed 9/11-related health problems.
On 9/11, the first responders were mostly police, firefighters and EMTs. They knowingly ran towards the danger that day to protect the rest of us, and too many of them paid the ultimate price.
Today, our police, firefighters and EMTs are still out on the front lines, and so too are doctors, nurses, building workers, pharmacists, other frontline city workers, grocery store clerks and countless others whose occupations have been deemed “essential” by government.
The roles they fill may be different, but all of them have jobs that require them to run toward the danger, every day, so that the rest of us can stay safe. And all of them are heroes who, with every passing day, leave behind more families — more children, spouses and loved ones — whose lives will never be the same.
As of last Friday, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority alone had already lost dozens of workers to the virus, with nearly 1,900 in total having tested positive. And this week, we learned we’ve tragically lost 50 DOE personnel, 21 of them teachers. The scale of their sacrifice — and of every other frontline worker who knowingly placed themselves at risk — is matched only by their selflessness and service to others.
We should take care of the families of all frontline workers who have succumbed to the virus, regardless of immigration status, with a national, federally funded compensation fund modeled after the one created after 9/11. The fund should also cover the health-care costs of all frontline workers, now and in the future, just as the Zadroga bill is doing.
Closer to home, there are other ways our city and state government could be showing our commitment and respect. For starters, we should extend line-of-duty death benefits to all public employees who were likely exposed to the COVID-19 virus as a result of their jobs and later died.
At the end of the day, the true measure of how we weather this storm lies not in our shared grief, but in our collective humanity — in how we care for the sons and daughters who will never again feel a parent’s hug, and the husbands and wives left to carry on alone.
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