With one-house budget proposals expected to come out next week, one state lawmaker is pushing for a late addition to be included to create a scholarship fund for New York children who had a parent, caregiver or sibling die or become disabled due to COVID-19. 

New York City became the global epicenter of COVID-19 infections and deaths three years ago next week, spurring statewide shutdowns.

More than 78,000 New Yorkers have died from COVID-19, according to the state Health Department. Advocates with COVID Survivors for Change say that left least 15,000 children in New York with one fewer parent, caregiver or sibling.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates about 8% of American adults suffer from symptoms of long COVID-19 and other serious health issues since recovery.

Veronica Fletcher was at the state Capitol with her three children Wednesday. The Brooklyn family continues to grieve the loss of their husband and father, Joseph Trevor Fletcher, who died from COVID in 2020 at the age of 60 without underlying health issues.

"As my children were wrapped in sheets, wearing homemade face masks, sitting f5 feet across from me on our sectional couch, I told them that their papa went to heaven the night before," she recalled, holding back tears. "I was forced to ignore the natural, compelling motherly instinct to comfort my children. We were all afraid to touch each other out of fear for more death."

Assemblyman Angelo Santabarbara introduced new legislation for the state to fund scholarships for children who had a parent, caregiver or sibling die from or become disabled because of COVID.

COVID Survivors for Change rallied for the bill and worked to persuade lawmakers to push for the measure Wednesday.

The group will continue to push for legislation this session to create baby bonds, or childhood savings accounts, for children who had parents or caregivers die from the virus.

People have learned how to live with the coronavirus, getting vaccinated or taking other precautions to reduce infection, but Santabarbara says that doesn't mean the state should neglect those affected by the pandemic.

"We have to ensure they are not left behind," the Rotterdam Democrat said. "That's why we're here today."

Members of the Senate and Assembly are engrossed in budget negotiations, preparing to release their counter proposals to Gov. Kathy Hochul's spending plan early next week.

It's unclear how much the scholarship program would cost, coming from the state's higher education funding.

Santabarbara could not provide an estimate, citing ongoing negotiations.

But time is of the essence as lawmakers iron out the final details of what will make their one-house budgets.

"Anything that's part of the budget is going to be in flux," Santabarbara said. "Higher education costs have changed over time, so I want to take that into account as well."

Sources said lawmakers support the scholarship program or other support for children who had a parent or caregiver die or become disabled from COVID and lost financial support to help them achieve higher education.

But the legislation was introduced quite late in the budget cycle, they said, adding most members of the Legislature continue to be unaware of the proposal. Expanding financial assistance for New Yorkers to pursue higher education is expected to apply to a more broad group in the 2023-24 spending plan.

Black and Latino children are 2.5 times more likely to have lost a parent or caregiver to COVID than white children, according to the National Institute of Health.

About 65 million people worldwide suffer from long COVID, according to a January report in the Nature Reviews Microbiology journal.

Hochul's budget does not explicitly earmark investments to support people impacted by long COVID conditions or virus-related deaths of a close family member.

"Gov. Hochul's Executive Budget makes transformative investments to make New York more affordable, more livable and safer and she looks forward to working with the legislature on a final budget that meets the needs of all New Yorkers," governor's spokesman Justin Mason said in a prepared statement.

The state Health Department has an internal working group dedicated to long-COVID education for health providers, and data tracking as part of the state Health Department's pandemic response, according to the governor's office.

DOH dedicated a site to long COVID and the resources available to assist New Yorkers last September, which has information about disability benefits and resources for treatment.

Hochul and the Department of Health hosted a consortium of experts to discuss long COVID last month.

New York State Workers' Compensation Board has a series of webinars providing information on workers' rights when it comes to filing a workers' compensation claim and the cash and/or medical benefits they may be eligible to receive. Long COVID can be considered a disability under the Americans with Disabilities Act.