Lawmakers address opioid crisis on university campuses

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In most university dormitories, resident assistants are tasked with planning programs, fostering a welcoming community for first-year and on-campus students, covering the front desk and conducting room inspections.

Now their duties may expand if House Bill 39 is passed. It would require resident assistants to administer life-saving drugs to those who may be overdosing.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that there were 7,231 deaths due to drug overdose in the state of Florida in 2020. With growing issues centered on opioid and synthetic drug use, the Florida Legislature is taking action against the opioid crisis.

HB 39 is sponsored by Rep. Jervontae Edmonds , D-West Palm Beach, (Dem.) and Dr. Joel Rudman, R-Okaloosa. The “Emergency Opioid Antagonist” bill will require Florida colleges and universities to have a supply of opioid antagonists in residence halls for use by trained employees.

Fentanyl is known as a powerful synthetic opioid that has grown in popularity. This “party drug” can be fatal with only the most negligible concentration and has claimed the lives of many over the last couple of years. HB 39 hopes to lower the number of fatalities by placing life-saving medicines on college campuses, but what does this mean for resident assistants or other housing personnel who will work in high-stress situations?

Deanna C. Hughes, assistant director of conduct and care for Florida State University housing, is glad to see that the opioid issue is being taken seriously, but is interested to see what the future of housing positions will look like.

“I know there will be conversations about who should assume these roles, should positions change, are these traditional roles best outfit for adults with the appropriate certification or experience in the medical field,” Hughes said. “It is scary enough to teach developing adults who are student leaders, RAs, desk assistants to handle alcohol-related incidents … somebody’s life could hang in the balance because of your new responsibility.”

Naloxone is one of the most common opioid antagonists that help to reverse an overdose. Antagonists “block one or more opioid receptors in the central or peripheral nervous system,” according to the National Library of Medicine.

Tracy Thomas is the director of physical therapy at Florida A&M University and holds a Ph.D. in pharmaceutical sciences with an emphasis in cardiovascular pharmacology and toxicology. As a healthcare professional, she believes housing employees should administer life-saving medication only when proper training has been received.

“I personally equate this to a life-saving measure and believe it to be parallel to someone performing CPR in an emergency situation,” Thomas said. “In health care, the goal is to sustain and promote quality of life, and if the administration of opioid antagonist would provide that for someone, I am in favor of anyone who is properly trained to administer.”

The bill ensures those who “administer or attempt to administer an emergency opioid antagonist to a person believed to be experiencing an opioid overdose is immune from any civil or criminal liability” as well as the institution. This may seem to take the weight off of the shoulders of university employees, but high-stress situations can negatively impact mental health.

Hughes advocates for making mental health a priority and feels government and university officials need to be intentional when listening to the needs of those who may be tasked with administering these medications.

“What needs to be in place is emotional assistance support, a 24-seven line, a site on campus with professionals that can navigate through tough conversations of those experiences,” Hughes said. “I believe there should be circles of support where it is OK to talk about things without fear of sharing too much or losing their jobs.”