MOBILE, Ala. (WALA) – FOX10 News is committed to getting the facts about how the government’s response to the coronavirus affects regular people.

Here is investigative reporter Brendan Kirby with Wednesday’s installment.

QUESTION: We got a question from a woman who was called back to work at a restaurant where she had been working. But she’s the caregiver of an 85-year-old father. Is she eligible to stay on unemployment?

BRENDAN: She might be, but it has to be connected to the disease. Ordinarily, when you are laid off and then called back to work, you can’t keep collecting unemployment benefits.

The Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program created by the Coronavirus, Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act provides a number of exceptions related to the coronavirus outbreak. One of them allows for people to continue on unemployment if they are providing care for a family member or member of the household who has been diagnosed with COVID-19.

Other exceptions include:

  • If the person was diagnosed with COVID-19 or is experiencing symptoms of the disease.
  • If a member of the household has been diagnosed.
  • If a child or other person the filer is responsible for is unable to attend school or another facility that is closed because of the outbreak.
  • If the person is unable to reach the place of work because of a quarantine.
  • If the person was scheduled to start a job but is unable to reach the job because of COVID-19.
  • If the person became the breadwinner because the head of household died from COVID-19.
  • If the person has to quit as a direct result of COVID-19
  • If the person’s place of employment is closed because of COVID-19.

These are covered in questions unemployment recipients have to answer when they recertify as part of the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program.

QUESTION: Another question comes from a woman who was called back to work in early May after having been on unemployment. When she got her first paycheck two weeks later, she found she had two checks – one for the period she just worked and one that was labeled “COVID pay” from when she was laid off.

Now she’s worried she might be accused of fraud. What should she do?

BRENDAN: Several other people have said they are in this same situation. An Alabama Department of Labor spokeswoman, Tara Hutchison, assured FOX10 News that it is not likely the state is going to come after her.

Someone fraudulently obtaining unemployment benefits has to act “willfully.” This would be, for example, lying about a job while getting unemployment.

What ultimately happens in this case is unclear. Hutchison told FOX10 News that it depends on what the payment is for. If it is a gift from the viewer’s employer, there is no problem. If it is wages, from the Paycheck Protection Program or otherwise, then she may have to pay it back.

So, if you’re in this situation, you might want to hold on to the extra money for a while.

QUESTION: There is some uncertainty over how deadly the coronavirus actually is. One way is to look at the death rate, but Centers for Disease Control and Prevention looks at more than just that. Tell us about it.

BRENDAN: The death rate is tricky because scientists do know for sure how many people have contracted the disease. And there are also incidents when COVID-19 deaths might be over-counted or under-counted.

One measure the CDC uses is to look at all deaths from all causes and then look week by week to see if that number is higher than expected based on recent years. This has some advantages. You can see, perhaps, if the overall death rate is declining because of deaths from other causes. On the other hand, you can spot when people are dying indirectly – for instance, because of overwhelmed hospitals.

Overall, totals deaths from all causes since the beginning of February is right in line with the expected number. That suggests that while lots of people have died from the coronavirus, fewer people are dying of other things.

In April, when COVID-19 deaths spiked nationally, many more people were dying overall than would be expected. It peaked the week ending April 11, when there deaths were 33 percent more than expected based on the average of that week the previous three years. The following week in April, deaths were 32 percent higher than expected.

So, when COVID-19 was at its peak, the death rate was quite high. It was adding significantly to overall death totals. It’s still a deadly disease, but in recent weeks, coronavirus deaths have not been significantly adding the overall totals.

QUESTION: And what about Alabama? Break that down for us.

BRENDAN: Alabama has a relatively small number of coronavirus deaths. It was 581 Wednesday afternoon. So far, this has not been a significant driver of mortality in Alabama.

In fact, since the start of February, fewer people have died than expected, based on the average of the last year years. Deaths have been about 9 percent less than normal.

Compare that to places that have been extremely hard hit. More than 40,000 people have died from all causes in New York City. That is more than double the expected deaths. Other states with significantly more deaths than a typical year are:

  • New Jersey, 43 percent more.
  • Massachusetts, 25 percent more.
  • The rest of New York State, 25 percent more.
  • Maryland, 10 percent more.

So far, the coronavirus has accounted for only about 3 percent of all deaths in Alabama. In New York City, about 43 percent of all deaths have been from COVID-19.

But not all states that have been hit hard have a higher-than-usual overall death toll. Coronavirus makes up 18 percent of all deaths since Feb. 1 in Connecticut. But the total number is less than half the expected total.

One caveat about these numbers: They are based on reports from the states, and they don’t always report at the same time. But it gives a different snapshot.

(If you have a #COVIDINFO question for investigative reporter Brendan Kirby, email him at Brendan.Kirby@fox10tv.com)

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