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Drexel study examines COVID-19 stress impacting first responders

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PHILADELPHIA (WPVI) -- For six months now, the Philadelphia Fire Department and Drexel University have partnered to study the levels of stress and mental health of first responders in the era of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Presently, they are crunching the data collected, but already there are preliminary findings that could help guide officials going forward.

Even before the pandemic, researchers at Drexel University's School of Public Health found that the mental health load of the job of firefighters and paramedics was already significant. Now you add putting on all that protective gear to make sure you're not catching the virus when responding to emergency calls.

 "It's the calls when you don't think you need to put it on and then the patients are coming back positive and then our members have to worry about did they contract it," said paramedic Jacqulyn Murphy.

Crystal Yates, the deputy commissioner of EMS, says the biggest fear now is catching the virus.

"I think that we are having stresses coming from multiple angles, like a pressure cooker as we term it, like, 'You're getting it! You're getting it,'" said Yates.

For the last six months, Dr. Jennifer Taylor has led a team at Drexel conducting a COVID-19 rapid mental health assessment at the Philadelphia Fire Department and 16 other fire departments across the country.

"It's interesting because we are seeing some places around the country, not uniform but, we'll see spikes in anxiety, spikes in depression. One of the things that's concerning most is increases in intent to leave the profession," said Dr. Taylor.

In response to the preliminary findings, the Philadelphia Fire Department is reminding their members that they have employee assistance programs to help them deal with the stress.

"We also have other avenues through our local union. We have peer support groups," said Yates.

Unfortunately, while scientists would like to spend more time analyzing the data to determine what's resources are needed to help deal with the stress, the program is running out of funding.

"It behooves us to try to find the funding to keep going so that we can continue to measure, especially as we enter the second wave," said Taylor.

Taylor is hoping that by the end of the year they will have some robust data to help guide fire departments and their unions to bring resources to address these COVID-19 related stress issues.

Credit: Dann Cuellar from 6ABC Action News