Two University of California (UC Riverside) professors were awarded grants of $727,000 and $150,000 respectively to study opioid abuse and COVID-19. The funding came at a critical time because, even amidst the backdrop of a global pandemic that has resulted in the deaths of over 150,000 people in the United States, the opioid epidemic has not gone away, and remains a major issue.
The Department of Health and Human Services estimates that over 47,000 people died due to opioid-related issues in 2018. Especially with some states enforcing several lockdown or quarantine measures, there may be an increased reason to worry about people who experience substance abuse issues.
The Opioid Epidemic Is A Crisis Within a Crisis
The director of The National Institute For Health, Dr. Francis Collins, as well as the director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, Dr. Nora Volkow, agreed that the COVID-19 pandemic may have exasperated the opioid crisis, and made life worse for those suffering from substance abuse issues. These issues and the still-raging COVID-19 pandemic still causing major disruptions all over the country begs the need for increased research into both issues. This is why assistant professors at the UC Riverside School of Medicine have been awarded a grant to support study on opioid use, COVID-19 testing, as well as public education.
Professor Subica received a $727,000 grant from National Institute on Drug Abuse. He spoke on the importance of this research:
Next to COVID-19, the opioid overdose epidemic is the biggest public health crisis affecting the U.S. since HIV/AIDS, with 48,000 people dying per year from an opioid overdose. No research has sought to understand or address opioid use disorders in Pacific Islander populations — research and clinical gap this three-year intervention development grant will seek to address.
This research will specifically examine the scope of opioid use among Native Hawaiians in Hawaii and Tongans in Utah, and to design a culturally-tailored intervention that will help to engage Pacific Islanders with opioid abuse treatment. According to Subica, Pacific Islanders have nearly every single risk factor for opioid addiction, which includes extremely high rates of mental health and substance abuse disorders.
And as Subica further explains:
People with opioid use disorders are at very high risk for death from overdose. It is thus a public health priority to intervene before Pacific Islanders overdose on opioids. We will create the intervention and pilot-test it, our goal being randomized controlled trials of this intervention in future studies.
COVID in Coachella Valley: Helping To Help Communities
Ann Cheney was awarded a $150,000 grant from the Desert Healthcare District which will go towards COVID-19 testing as well as public health education focused on farm-working communities in California’s eastern Coachella Valley. This 5-month grant will include a close partnership with Riverside County Public Health. They will be providing coronavirus testing kits and conduct contact tracing and case investigation.
Professor Cheney spoke on the project:
UCR clinical faculty, medical students, pre-med students, and promotoras will be involved in engaging Latinx farm-working communities in testing and will disseminate public health material.
Cheney explained that the reason for this funding is that there are overly high rates of COVID-19 located in The eastern Coachella Valley, especially in the communities bordering the Salton Sea, such as Mecca, Thermal, North Shore, and Oasis.
According to Cheney, these farming communities lack adequate access to testing, and there is a general distrust as well as a lack of access to adequate public health information. Cheney continued:
We have heard there isn’t sufficient access to testing,” she said. “Factors like mistrust, stigma, and limited understanding of virus spread shape decisions to get tested.