A local firefighter's coronavirus-related death prompted one New Jersey mayor to fight for new legislation

Late firefighter Israel Tolentino Jr. (center), and his two children. Tolentino Jr., of Passaic, New Jersey, died from complications due to the novel coronavirus, his wife said.

(CNN)Israel Tolentino Jr., known as "Izzy" to family and friends, was considered an everyday hero to his Passaic, New Jersey community.

On his days off, the firefighter and dad of two served as an EMT and as a member of the volunteer community emergency response team, said Hector Lora, the mayor of Passaic.
Last year, at the fire department's Christmas Toy Drive, Tolentino, Jr. volunteered to be Santa Claus, said his wife, Maria Vazquez. He sported a traditional red suit and white beard while cruising down the neighborhood streets on a motorcycle to hand out toys.
On March 31, the 33-year-old firefighter died from complications due to the novel coronavirus, which has struck more than 557,000 people in the US, according to data from John Hopkins University. Ten days after Tolentino Jr.'s death, his father, Israel Tolentino Sr., also passed away from Covid-19. Both tested positive for the virus when they were admitted to the hospital, Vazquez said.
"This virus has left us with a void that can't be filled," Vazquez told CNN. "Family was everything to him (Tolentino Jr.)."
The back-to-back tragedies have left Vazquez and her family -- including her children, 9-year-old Ailani, and 7-year-old Israel -- devastated. With the grief, Vazquez said, also came the sudden realization of having to raise their kids on her own, without the income of her spouse to help them.
The family will receive an initial pension payout based on Tolentino Jr.'s salary at the time of death, Lora said. But Vazquez fears that will not be enough.
Lora, who said he was "impacted" by Tolentino Jr.'s big heart, decided to champion efforts to help Vazquez and others like her.
The mayor's office is asking state lawmakers to recognize coronavirus-related deaths of first responders as line-of-duty deaths. Doing so, he said, would help secure additional financial and health benefits for the families of those who have died from the virus.
"It's unfair for the family of any first responder to have to put their life on the line and then doubt whether or not their children will have their education paid for or whether or not the family will have resources that are necessary," Lora said.

'Do the right thing now'

In New Jersey, Lora is advocating for the introduction of a bill similar to the 9/11 Victim Compensation Fund, which provides additional health and financial assistance to emergency workers that rushed to the scene of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.
The fund paid out $7 billion in damages when it originally operated from 2001 to 2003, was reopened in 2011 and extended for another five years in 2015. Former late night host Jon Stewart, a 9/11 first responders advocate, was among those pushing for it to be reauthorized. President Donald Trump signed a bill reauthorizing the fund last year.