Virginia universities march to frontlines in battle against opioids

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Five Virginia universities are joining forces to tackle the opioid crisis at the state level.

By U2B Staff 

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A multi-university consortium has formed in Virginia in a first-of-its-kind effort to be undertaken by universities to tackle the opioid crisis, described as the biggest drug epidemic in US history.

The protracted opioid crisis has been devastating communities across America for more than three decades now, claiming more lives than AIDS ever did at the height of the HIV crisis.

A combination of initiatives involving stakeholders from government to community has resulted in overdose deaths falling 5 percent to 68,500 last year, with 47,600 of them related to opioids. But while promising, observers caution against early celebration, pointing to the continued rise of the synthetic opioid fentanyl, a chief cause of today’s fatalities.

In efforts to address the opioid crisis, the country’s higher education and medical fraternities have rolled out numerous measures and programmes, from enhancing medical education to improving patient care, partnering on research and forming public-private partnerships.


But in most cases, multi-university collaborations have been state-initiated, funded and led. 

This time, however, Virginia’s universities are organising among themselves to create an ecosystem of support for local health organisations working on the ground to fight the opioid crisis.

Led by the University of Virginia (UVA), they have formed the Virginia Higher Education Opioid Consortium (VHEOC), a coalition that counts among its members four other higher education institutions in the Southeastern US state. These are George Mason University, Virginia Tech, Old Dominion University and Virginia State University. 

Through the coalition, the universities will pool their vast resources to help reduce the incidence rate of substance abuse and fatalities in the state. The VHEOC is also presenting itself as a model to be used in other states and for other public health crises.

The Cavalier Daily, UVA’s student paper, explained in a report that the idea for the VHEOC came up last year prior to the disbursement of State Opioid Response Programme grants from the US Department of Health and Human Services’ Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA).

According to the paper, UVA Assistant Dean for Research and School of Medicine Office of Research Director David Driscoll teamed up with members of the Virginia State Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Services to propose that some funding be channeled to Virginia universities to help them enhance the capabilities of Community Service Boards across the state.


Community Services Boards or Behavioral Health Authorities as they are referred to in some communities, provide local services and support for those suffering mental health challenges, substance use disorders and intellectual disabilities.

“Community services boards … are community-level organisations,” Driscoll said in the paper. “People who are working with people who need help with substance-use disorders, they put together the prevention programs, they’re really the front line.”

With US$2.5 million from SAMHSA secured in August, the coalition has been reaching out to the over 40 community service boards across the state to get the process started. 

The plan is that the boards will raise issues or questions like choosing the best type of drug screening with the VHEOC. The coalition’s university members will each put out a proposal to help the board who then gets to choose their favourite. The university then receives specific funding to spearhead the project or research.

“The idea that we work together and try to solve problems in an aligned, collaborative effort is a new idea in Virginia,” said William Hazel, George Mason University Senior Advisor for Innovation and Community Engagement. Hazel, who served as Secretary of Health and Human Resources of Virginia from 2010 to 2018 is working alongside Driscoll to get the VHEOC off the ground.

“We haven’t tried that before to this extent, in this circumstance, and if it works I think it holds promises and can be a model for working in other domains.”


From his experience working as secretary of health and human resources, Hazel reportedly noticed there was a lack of use of university resources. If a community service board did not have the capacity to do something, they wouldn’t seek funding. 

This is a missed opportunity to fix local health problems and a gap the VHEOC aims to fill. This way, local health services can tap university expertise and receive state funding to carry out its projects.

“It’s a completely new concept, it’s never been done,” Driscoll said.

The coalition is currently in outreach stage, with members working to explain to community service boards what its primary objectives are and how, by working together, they may just be able to turn the opioid crisis on its head for the state.

For the universities involved, harnessing the power and might of each other’s resources while coordinating their activities as a coalition is much better than working in silos. Collaborating also helps academics and students skill up, while the institution gets to fulfill its civic duties.

“Universities have a lot of capacity to help with problems that in some cases, local-level departments don’t,” Driscoll said. “I think it’s our responsibility — we’re a public university, we should be doing something about these problems. If this works, that can become a model for how we approach these problems.”