The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has awarded Virginia Cooperative Extension nearly $1.1 million to expand prevention training to help tackle to the commonwealth's rural opioid addiction problem.

The two-year Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration-funded (SAMHSA) Rural Opioids Technical Assistance Through Virginia Cooperative Extension project will build upon two current USDA-funded Cooperative Extension projects to expand training and technical assistance on opioid prevention through the implementation of evidenced-based curricula targeting students in nine additional rural Virginia counties.

Rural communities are disproportionately affected by prescription opioid misuse and abuse. Of 134 counties or independent cities in Virginia, 53 are designated as rural.

Virginia Cooperative Extension, the outreach program for the state’s two land-grant universities, Virginia Tech and Virginia State University, is well-positioned to address these technical assistance needs through its network of local offices throughout the state, its focus on bringing evidence-based information to local communities, and strong existing relationships in rural communities. There are at least six rural counties in each of the four Extension districts: Southwest, Central, Northern, and Southeast. Two or three counties per district will participate.

In addition, a project coordinator will be hired and housed in each district. Each will coordinate the project, facilitate community engagement, and implement programs with community partners.

A total of approximately 5,000 seventh-grade students and 1,000 sixth-grade students across nine counties will receive the opioid-prevention training over the two years of the program. In addition, the electronic High-Risk Patient Education Program developed by the Virginia Rural Health Association for the USDA-funded Rural Health and Safety Education project will be disseminated to hospitals and health care facilities in four more rural counties per year.

Extension agents will work closely with staff from community services boards on the implementation of evidence-based prevention programs for middle school students and their families. Additional partnerships will be formed through existing collaboration between the Virginia Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Services and a statewide coalition of universities that has developed a menu of options for technical assistance to community service boards related to prevention, treatment, and recovery for opioid misuse and addiction.

Virginia Cooperative Extension has two current USDA-funded projects that address the opioid crisis. In June, Extension received a $1.28 million grant for collaborative opioid work through the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) to reach four Virginia counties. Awarded by the USDA-NIFA Children, Youth, and Families At-Risk program, the five-year grant supports health education initiatives spearheaded by Extension aimed at preventing opioid abuse among vulnerable communities in Virginia.

That initiative is overseen by co-project directors Crystal Tyler-Mackey, an Extension specialist in community viability, and Virginia State University’s Maurice Smith, a 4-H Extension specialist with the university. This work is a continuation of a $321,638 NIFA Rural Health and Safety Education grant awarded last fall to Virginia Cooperative Extension for work in Henry/Martinsville and Grayson counties. Karen Vines, an Extension specialist and assistant professor in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences serves as the project director.

The SAMHSA funding will expand Extension’s reach to nine counties in addition to the six already being served by the projects administered by Vines, Tyler-Mackey, and Smith for a total of 15 counties across the three projects.

Kathy Hosig, director for the Virginia Tech Center for Public Health Practice and Research and a specialist with Virginia Cooperative Extension, will serve as project director.