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Governor’s Advisory Commission on Opioids and Addiction Discusses Emerging Concerns, Promising Collaborations

The Governor’s Advisory Commission on Opioids and Addiction met on July 26 and received briefings on efforts to address hepatitis A and C in Virginia; work underway to coordinate an emerging coalition of advocates; and current use and future plans for a data analytics system to inform local and state responses to the addiction crisis.

Andy Pavord discussed his work with a coalition of advocates who are developing a “Virginia Recovery Agenda” for 2021. The newly-formed Virginia Recovery Coalition aims to gather existing groups with common interests to coalesce around a shared platform that would promote addiction treatment and recovery. As part of developing the unified agenda, the coalition is developing a formal structure and meeting with candidates for public office.

Marshall Vogt and Rachell Stallings, epidemiologists with the Virginia Department of Health (VDH), presented information on cases of hepatitis A and C in the Commonwealth, conditions that are linked to injection drug use. Hepatitis viruses cause liver inflammation that can be life-threatening if left untreated. Hepatitis A is usually spread through contaminated food, although Virginia has recently seen an increase in cases transmitted through other means among high-risk populations, such as correctional inmates and people who are homeless or housing-insecure. Injection drug use is a risk factor for contracting hepatitis A, and in many cases individuals with hepatitis A also have co-occurring hepatitis C infections. Fortunately, a vaccine is available for hepatitis A, and Mr. Vogt explained that numbers of cases appear to be levelling off, a positive development he attributed to a coordinated effort among local health departments, Community Services Boards, and jails to encourage immunizations.

Ms. Stallings explained that numbers of hepatitis C cases have been increasing in recent years, and that the primary risk factor for contracting the infection is injection drug use. Even the large numbers of reported cases are likely an undercount, as the Centers for Disease Control estimates that there are 14 unreported cases for every reported case. Hepatitis C infections frequently co-occur with HIV infections, and this co-infection increases the risk of liver failure. Incarcerated populations are disproportionately affected by the virus.

VDH is responding to these public health issues by expanding testing and treatment for hepatitis at local health department clinics, working with faculty at the University of Virginia to train primary care providers on screening for and treating hepatitis C, and working with Walgreens to offer rapid testing in local pharmacies. VDH also operates several comprehensive harm reduction programs that supply clean needles and offer counseling and other services to injection drug users who seek assistance.

Adam Roy, Chief Technology Officer with Qlarion, the company contracted to develop a data analytics platform to assist with local and state prevention and treatment efforts, led a discussion about what Commission members would like to see incorporated into the system. Lauren Cummings, Executive Director of the Northern Shenandoah Valley Substance Abuse Coalition, discussed how the application, the Virginia Framework for Addiction Analytics and Community Transformation, is used in her community. The platform allows community leaders to track overdoses as well as successful administrations of naloxone, so that they can monitor spikes in overdoses and take action, as well as predict months in which spikes can be expected and take proactive measures. The application also assists in identification of emerging threats, such as stimulants.

The Advisory Commission’s next meeting is planned for September.

VACo Contact: Katie Boyle

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