Wife of fallen New Bedford police sergeant fights for COVID-19 death benefits

Coronavirus

NEW BEDFORD, Mass. (WPRI) — Several bills aiming to recognize families of Massachusetts employees and first responders that died from COVID-19 are up for consideration in the state legislature.

Rep. Chris Hendricks recently testified before a virtual Joint Committee on Public Service hearing, in support of the three bills:

  • H.2650: An Act relative to disability or death caused by contagious diseases; presumption
  • H.2770: An Act relative to a COVID-19 presumption for law enforcement
  • S.1767: An Act relative to a COVID-19 presumption for public employees

“All of which, in one way or another, would create a legal presumption that any police officer stricken with COVID-19 did so in the context of his or her employment of an officer of the Commonwealth,” Hendricks said.

He said families of first responders that die from COVID-19 are facing an undue burden with a lack of death benefits. Currently, first responders receive benefits if they pass away from a violent act or accident related to their job.

“It’s practically impossible to show where this COVID molecule was contracted, and quite frankly, municipalities are not necessarily jumping at the gun to protect these families like you think they would in these situations,” he said. “But this is fixable, however, with the functions of the law structured in the three aforementioned bills.”

New Bedford Police Sgt. Mike Cassidy died in late April after a long battle with COVID-19. He was a 27-year veteran of the force and served in the U.S. Marines during Operation Desert Storm prior to joining the New Bedford Police Department.

Hendricks said because no such presumption exists, Cassidy’s family is currently receiving less than they would have, had COVID-19 been deemed a work-related injury. He told lawmakers lump-sum benefits on the state and federal level “are both being tied up for this very reason.”

“We in the legislature should be asking ourselves, ‘Is this what we want for our families of those who protect us to go through an administrative nightmare to get what they deserve, especially during our global pandemic?'” he said.

Hendricks said making a COVID-19 diagnosis work-related is “an acknowledgment that we value the risk that police officers and other essential workers have taken during this outbreak.”

He also noted with COVID-19 cases on the rise, in addition to the highly contagious Delta variant, the state should be more proactive “and get something like this on the books to protect our first responders like Sgt. Mike Cassidy.”

Debbie Cassidy testified before the joint committee, recalling her husband’s initial diagnosis on March 14, saying “he went downhill pretty quick.” She says he went by ambulance to the hospital two days later but was sent home when she says doctors told him he would be fine.

“He was not fine,” she said. “He could barely walk, he could barely breathe without a struggle.”

She says her husband went back to the hospital two days later and was later put in the intensive care unit before eventually being put on a ventilator.

Debbie and her daughter later tested positive, and they were not allowed to visit her husband’s hospital room for weeks.

“This man would put on his uniform and be a cop 24/7. He received citations, life-saving awards, whether he was on-duty or not, he was out there serving and protecting this city,” Debbie said.

While the federal government does provide benefits to families of fallen officers and has recognized COVID-19 as a work-related death, Debbie told WBZ the city of New Bedford has not filled out paperwork to seek federal benefits for her family.

The New Bedford Police Chief was not available for comment.

“They are having a hard time seeing that COVID is in the line of duty,” she said before the joint committee.

Debbie says legislation being considered would help to ensure she and her daughter are financially protected.

“It has been heartbreaking, the emotions that go along with it all, but the panic of not knowing what our future holds, when he, for 27 years, put his life on the line not knowing if he was going to come home to his family, and this time, he did not,” she said.

Debbie says this legislation would not only help her family but help other families in similar situations.

WBZ reports four other police officers have died from COVID-19 in Massachusetts, and all of their chiefs have sought federal benefits for their families. Only one family has received it.

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