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Penn. County Opens COVID-19 Hotline for First Responders

The Herald, Sharon, Pa.

Even as first responders and health care workers—and their families—have had to deal with the fear of exposure to COVID-19 in the course of doing their jobs, many of them are fighting other invisible foes.

Stress and anxiety.

“When our first responders are doing what they do best, saving lives, they have to do what they have to do to get the job done,” said Duane Piccirilli, a Hermitage resident and director of the Mahoning County Health and Recovery Board. “Now is the time they need to reach out to someone if they need support.”

Toward that end, the Community Counseling Center of Mercer County has opened the Hero Support Line for Emergency Service Personnel and Healthcare Workers of Mercer County.

“As we continue to battle the COVID-19 pandemic and prepare to enter the yellow phase of Governor Wolfe’s plan for reopening the state on May 8th, we believe this to be a good time for us to step up and provide this free community support for our emergency services and healthcare workers,” said Kip Hoffman, the counseling center’s CEO.

The program came about through a conversation among Hoffman, Shenango Valley Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Sherris Moreira and Piccirilli regarding any additional ways to support the county’s first responder community.

Piccirilli, who is also vice president of the Hermitage City Board of Commissioners, said he was aware of the need for a counseling hotline for all first responder, medical and safety personnel, and their family members.

Calls to the support line are kept private and confidential. But Piccirilli pushed back against a stigma toward people who seek counseling.

He said it was a sign of strength for people to ask for assistance when they need it, and that the line would remove barriers that prevent those on the front lines from seeking help.

Even asking someone else if they need help heavily relies on the approach. For example, counselors are trained to ask questions like “What has happened to you?” instead of “what is wrong with you?”

“Unresolved trauma is not good for anyone, especially our loved ones,” Piccirilli said.

T.J. Hudock, senior director of behavioral services at Sharon Regional Medical Center, said the hospital has carried out a proactive approach, with daily huddles and increased communications throughout the system from the onset of the pandemic.

That has included measures such as hand hygiene, frequent symptom monitoring, strict adherence to the use of personal protective equipment and limiting visitation. But it also covers emotional needs for health care workers.

Hospital staff who go through stressful situations receive individualized support tailored to their individual needs. This could mean giving them time to grieve or to spend with loved ones, Hudock said. Sharon Regional has a specialized behavioral health team, whose training includes dealing with crisis and grief, available to provide support for employees.

“Information on the available supports, such as employee assistance programs and focused support groups were made available from the outset to support our staff as they worked through some of the fear and anxiety that many individuals—both in health care and in the public at large—have been dealing with,” Hudock said.

Health care workers and first responders have to be emotionally adaptable, but Hudock said the effects of stress can be cumulative and, over time, it can affect the most resilient people, leading to depression or even giving first responders thoughts about taking their own lives.

Because of that, Hudock said the new support line can be vital, even after the pandemic crisis ends.

“As it appears likely that the changes brought about by the coronavirus pandemic may have offshoots which continue well into 2020 and beyond, it will be important for mental health providers to utilize innovative ways to impact those who need support,” Hudock said. “This Hero Line is a good example of an innovative and targeted approach.”

Like their hospital counterparts, staff and crews at McGonigle Ambulance Service in Sharon have had to adjust their routines to the coronavirus pandemic, including the designation of a specific ambulance to transport known COVID-19 patients.

Communication Supervisor Wendy Bulger said that extends to asking if anyone is feeling sick when taking a call, or making sure residents are healthy before entering a house.

However, even with all these extra precautions, the crews’ concerns over potentially infecting a coworker or a family member still exists, though Bulger said much of those concerns has passed as the pandemic progressed.

“When it first started, the stress levels increased, people were getting angry and they wanted to make sure they weren’t taking it home to their family,” Bulger said.

Normally when a crew goes through a stressful incident, such as responding to a fatality, Bulger said shift supervisors—who know their crew members’ personalities best—will talk with them. Bulger said the regional hospitals have counseling programs available for first responders.

Bulger said the hero support line could be helpful for the tight-knit first responder community.

“We’re all in this together,” she said.

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