The University of Florida will lead nationwide efforts to identify emerging drug abuse trends as the coordinating center for the National Drug Early Warning System, or NDEWS. The surveillance network is critical for monitoring the ongoing opioid crisis and identifying new public health threats, such as the rise in new psychoactive substances.
Funded by the National Institute on Drug Abuse, part of the National Institutes of Health, NDEWS informs health experts, researchers and the community about drug use patterns throughout the country, hot spots with high rates of drug use or drug-related morbidity and new methods of drug use through leading-edge detection methods.
The drug landscape in the U.S. continues to shift, according to the research team. Deaths from fentanyl and similar drugs are on the rise, as well as from cocaine and psychostimulants such as methamphetamine. Recent upticks in vaping of cannabis and other substances among adolescents are reaching record-high year-to-year increases.
“We must embrace innovative strategies to address drug epidemics, and NDEWS is just that — a data-intensive approach that enables a rapid and smart response to emerging trends in drug abuse,” said David R. Nelson, M.D., senior vice president for health affairs at UF and president of UF Health. “I know this University of Florida team well, and they have decades of experience in substance use research and are in the best position to lead national efforts to tackle ongoing and new drug abuse crises. They care deeply about the community and are eager to lend their expertise to this effort to ultimately improve the lives of so many.”
The COVID-19 pandemic presents a new challenge for people with substance use issues who appear to be at increased risk for COVID-19-related adverse health outcomes and may have difficulty finding care during the crisis, said Linda B. Cottler, Ph.D., M.P.H., principal investigator for the coordinating center and a dean’s professor of epidemiology in the UF colleges of Public Health and Health Professions and Medicine. To address this, the team has received funding to add a pandemic-focused component to their research.
“Although in-person research with participants has been halted, COVID-19-focused efforts must begin now — with creative strategies that allow for immediate data to assess the impact of COVID-19 on substance use behaviors,” said Cottler, also the associate dean for research at the College of Public Health and Health Professions.
NDEWS will interview emergency responders, workers at syringe exchange programs and funeral directors to understand the impact of COVID-19 on people who use drugs, and then rapidly disseminate findings to the scientific community and public.
As the coordinating center, UF has received a five-year grant to track drug use trends through regular monitoring of key data from a range of resources, including the internet and social media. The center is also tasked with developing novel approaches to collecting data, such as web-based surveys, data mining and use of crowdsourcing.
“This new surveillance system is also innovative in that it will allow us to collect ‘drug checking’ data from the public,” said Joseph Palamar, Ph.D., M.P.H., an associate professor of population health at the NYU Grossman School of Medicine and co-investigator of NDEWS. “As such, people who test their drugs for the presence of fentanyl can report their findings to us and we will provide warnings about the extent of drug adulteration to the public in real-time.”
A scientific advisory group includes researchers from across the country, as well as scientists from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Office of National Drug Control Policy, the Drug Enforcement Administration and other agencies. NDEWS will soon be inviting investigators from urban, suburban and rural areas within 18 sites across the U.S. to collect standardized indicators of drug use on an ongoing basis. Center researchers will also train doctoral students and postdoctoral fellows in epidemiological surveillance of drug use through UF’s National Institute on Drug Abuse-funded training program.
In addition to Cottler and Palamar, the coordinating center team includes UF faculty members Catherine Striley, Ph.D., M.S.W., a research associate professor of epidemiology; Bruce Goldberger, Ph.D., a professor and the chief of the division of forensic medicine in the department of pathology, immunology and laboratory medicine in the College of Medicine; and Sara Jo Nixon, Ph.D., a professor in the department of psychiatry in the College of Medicine and director of UF’s Center for Addiction Research & Education, as well as Elan Barenholtz, Ph.D., an associate professor in the department of psychology at Florida Atlantic University’s Charles E. Schmidt College of Science.