Mason at forefront tackling Northern Virginia's opioid epidemic


George Mason University on April 19 hosted a daylong symposium to examine ways to eradicate the opioid crisis in Northern Virginia, an event that gathered stakeholders from around the state and federal government, including Gov. Ralph Northam and U.S. representatives Barbara Comstock (VA-10) and Gerald Connolly (VA-11).

The symposium in Dewberry Hall on the Fairfax Campus attracted a crowd of about 300, including industry and business leaders, representatives from academia and health care, and local media, a testament to the seriousness of the epidemic that Wilson Compton, deputy director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, called “the fire that is spreading across the country.”

“This is a crisis,” Northam said. “But if we all put our minds together, we can overcome it. We’ve done a lot of things in our history, and this is something that if we work together we can get done.”

That is why Virginia’s largest public research university, with a deep commitment to research of consequence, is joining with its partners in Northern Virginia and around the state to develop a multidisciplinary initiative that addresses the many issues around the epidemic.

“We must recognize this is not just about opioids and public health, but it is about substance abuse, addiction and mental health,” Mason Provost David Wu said. “It is also about trafficking, distribution, and over-prescription that involves criminal justice and public policy. There are a myriad of social factors that come into play. The approach to addressing these issues requires an exceptional level of collaboration and coordination between levels of government, community, organizations, fields of interest and academic institutions.”

The symposium had a robust agenda.

Mark Ginsberg, dean of Mason’s College of Education and Human Development, moderated a panel discussion on the scope of the opioid epidemic from federal, state and regional perspectives. Mark Rozell, dean of Mason’s Schar School of Policy and Government, led a discussion on public and private strategic priorities and opportunities. And Deb Crawford, Mason’s vice president for research, discussed Mason’s assets and introduced a short video featuring Mason faculty.

Workgroups that included Mason faculty and leaders in health, education, law enforcement, government and business explored prevention, reducing the economic and societal harm of the crisis, initiating and maintaining recovery, countering illegal distribution networks, and providing opportunities for employment, education and housing.

The recommendations will be communicated in a future report.

“This is about solutions and not just celebrating the problem,” said Bill Hazel, Mason’s senior advisor for strategic initiatives and policies, and a former Virginia secretary of health and human resources. “What we are hoping to do is have these people from different jurisdictions meet each other, and have the Mason community meet them. We want to learn from them so we can develop a strategy that is useful.”

“It’s like watching guys in crew,” Hazel said. “You’re not all on the same side [of the boat], but you’re pulling in the same direction.”

The scope of the opioid problem is daunting.

Compton reported that of Virginia’s 1,534 overdose deaths in 2017, 1,227 were from opioids. In the United States, there were 63,362 overdose deaths in 2016, 42,249 from opioids.

“This is happening to our friends and families. This is something that is touching every aspect of our lives,” Comstock said. “I can’t emphasize enough how important it is to be working as a community. That’s why it is so wonderful being here at George Mason University, because you have outreach into all aspects of the community.”

“It is the great social challenge of the moment,” Crawford said. “So bringing our faculty together across disciplines to take on a really impactful issue is what it’s all about.”

Despite the broad array of topics, there were central themes.

Northam said the emphasis should be on prevention, and he drew a slight gasp from the crowd when he told of asking 50 male inmates at a jail in Chesterfield County how their addiction began, and 95 percent cited legal prescriptions.

That hit home for Northam, a pediatric neurologist, who said he wants to visit the state’s medical schools to advise students and residents against over-prescribing opioids and to think of alternative ways of dealing with acute pain.

“That’s where universities like George Mason can come in with research and development and looking at new types of medications that are not as addictive,” Northam said.

He also wants the broadest distribution possible of Narcan, an FDA-approved nasal spray for emergency treatment of overdoses, and called on the Virginia legislature to increase healthcare funding and expand Medicaid.

“There are consequences to limited resources,” Northam said. “Let’s put the excuses aside and do what’s in the best interest of the Commonwealth of Virginia.”