How Columbia Researchers Are Responding to the Opioid Crisis During COVID-19
What happens when two public health epidemics—COVID-19 and opioids—collide? For this year’s Musher Lecture, Tim Hunt drew on the first-hand experience of a Columbia research team.
On November 5, Timothy Hunt, a leading implementation scientist in our School’s Social Intervention Group (SIG) and a PhD alumnus, delivered the 2020 Willma and Albert Musher Lecture on strategies for responding to the twin epidemics of COVID-19 and opioid overdose.
Introducing him, Dean Melissa Begg explained that the Musher Lecture was launched last year as a platform for scholars to share work on urgent social welfare problems and is the latest component of the Willma and Albert Musher Program, which was established at Columbia in 1995 by Albert Musher in honor of his wife Wilma and in support of his conviction that “the betterment of human life can best be accomplished through the use of the principles and procedures of science.”
“Albert Musher’s commitment to science and technology and social work was prescient and we are immensely grateful,” Dean Begg said.
Hunt focused his remarks on his experiences as a co-investigator for the HEALing Communities Study, which has the ambitious aim of reducing opioid-related deaths by 40 percent across 16 heavily affected New York State counties. The National Institute on Drug Abuse is supporting the research, which is part of a larger trans-agency effort to speed scientific solutions to stem the national opioid public health crisis across the United States. The HEALing Communities team for New York State consists of scientists from several Columbia schools and outside institutions, and is led by Nabila El-Bassel, who directs SIG and is both a University Professor and the Willma and Albert Musher Professor of Social Work.
Hunt opened his talk by noting that the SIG-led team has had little choice but to address—almost from day one—both substance use disorders and COVID-19, since its study was launched across New York State in January of this year. By March the pandemic had struck the United States—with New York State at its epicenter. From then on, many of the individuals the team was trying to reach faced the additional, pandemic-related challenges of social isolation, vanishing support systems, and greater difficulty in accessing treatments and medications. As a result, the team adapted the approaches they had developed for providing treatment for substance use disorder and support.
Noting that facing stressful times can sometimes spark innovation, Hunt outlined how telehealth has aided the process of developing data-driven interventions with the highest chance of reaching opioid-affected populations during COVID times. He noted that the core of their approach—listening to those with lived experience of substance use disorder and partnering with those already working on the ground—has remained the same.
Words from Tim Hunt
On adapting the HEALING Communities study to COVID considerations:
“Who ever anticipated in February or March of last year as we launched a very rigorous study, one of the largest studies in history of this type, that we would also be facing this huge pandemic? [But] we engaged with communities and learned how that engagement could serve multiple health crises at the same time.”
On crisis serving as a catalyst for innovation:
“This crisis is also an opportunity, and we have seen the results of that. Sometimes, people wanted to change long-held beliefs that were intransigent around policies and procedure, but they would not or could not over the course of many years. A crisis is often an opportunity for them.”
On the compound trauma created by COVID:
“Those who are living with substance use disorder have histories of trauma—domestic violence, sexual abuse, and other types of trauma—that have led them to self-medicate or can contribute to the difficulty of recovery. We want to think about how trauma informs our view, as well as how COVID informs our view of trauma. The event itself is traumatic as people are worried about their jobs, their families, their health. How do those impact the conditions we’re trying to treat?”
On the challenges of research collaboration during a pandemic:
“We have a very advanced team, and we are learning a lot from our partners in the other three states as well. Sometimes we meet for seven, eight, nine hours on Zoom. It’s a very hectic time. What has been amazing during COVID is that meetings continue to happen.”
On his personal connection to overdose prevention:
“This is a topic that not only is a professional topic for me but very personal. Having lost someone in my family to overdose death, I am passionate about the work. But also I know that even with all the knowledge we can have, with all the skills we can have, sometimes we are not successful. But we don’t give up. We keep trying. We keep looking for new methods. Because this is an area we cannot lose.”
The annual Willma and Albert Musher Lecture was instituted last year as part of the Willma and Albert Musher Program. Albert Musher made a transformational gift to the school in 1995 when he endowed the Wilma and Albert Musher chair, currently held by Dr. Nabila El-Bassel, who is also a University Professor at Columbia. The inaugural Musher chair was Dr. Edward Mullen, who served in this role from 1995 until his retirement in 2010, and now continues as the Musher Professor Emeritus. The Program also supports a doctoral scholarship, and it provided the funding for the School’s computer lab, known as the Musher Lab. Read more here.