Symposium puts Mason at forefront fighting Northern Virginia's opioid epidemic

George Mason University, opioid symposium

Bill Hazel [left], a former Virginia Secretary for Health and Human Services, who recently joined Mason's Office of Research as Senior Advisor for Strategic Initiatives and Policy; Germaine Louis, dean of the College of Health and Human Services; and Provost S. David Wu will lead the symposium "Eradicating the Opioid Crisis in Northern Virginia: A Population Strategy."

George Mason University will host a conference with Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam and Northern Virginia leaders to develop strategies to combat the opioid crisis, bringing the university’s multifaceted research to bear on the national epidemic.

Northam will kick off the April 19 event:Eradicating the Opioid Crisis in Northern Virginia: A Population Strategy.” The symposium in Dewberry Hall in the Johnson Center includes many regional partners who are searching for a more effective and collective strategy for a scourge that is adversely affecting the entire nation.

Mason will rely on its collective expertise in data collection and analytics, brain science, economics, law, education, psychology, nursing, public health, social work and law enforcement to work toward a solution to the crisis.

That was just what Mason Provost S. David Wu had in mind when he first asked a university-wide working committee to devise such a conference. Aware of Mason’s role as a leading R1 university in the Commonwealth of Virginia, Wu recognized the university’s potential to leverage its talent and resources in working with community partners to combat the epidemic.

“The symposium launches Mason's effort to help combat the national opioid epidemic,” Wu said. “I am excited about this initiative because it demonstrates the kind of social impact our faculty makes when they team up to tackle complex, multifaceted problems through multidisciplinary collaboration.”

The United States is currently in the midst of a national opioid overdose epidemic, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), with a record-high of more than 42,000 people dying from opioids in 2016. In Virginia alone, there were 803 fentanyl and/or heroin overdoses and 465 deaths from prescription opioid overdoses, according to a recent Fairfax County Opioid Task Force report that cited 2016 Virginia Department of Health data.

“Mason is convening this workshop to bring our existing and potentially new partners together to discuss the opioid epidemic, and to work toward the innovative approach for its eradication,” said Germaine Louis, the dean of Mason’s College of Health and Human Services. “The opioid epidemic affects all communities—though some more than others—and its complexity requires an integrated multi-disciplinary response to be successful.”

The morning panels feature federal, state and local perspectives on the crisis, including representatives from the Drug Enforcement Agency, National Institutes of Health and U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

The invitation-only afternoon session will feature smaller working groups that will discuss harm reduction, prevention, treatment, culture change and countering illegal drug trafficking netwoks while seeking to identify partnership-based action plans aimed at eradicating the epidemic.

Mason officials believe they are well-positioned to help in the fight, citing the diverse expertise of their staff, as well as the university’s federally funded, multidisciplinary homeland security center that serves as a model for their effort. That center figures to also contribute in key areas related to illegal substances, distribution networks and funding.

The hope is that the conference will jumpstart a more coordinated regional effort to combat the problem with Mason serving as its hub. More than 200 people are expected to attend the symposium.

“It would appear, based on the response, that people are ready for this conversation,” said Bill Hazel, the former two-term Virginia Secretary for Health and Human Resources who recently joined Mason’s Office of Research as Senior Advisor for Strategic Initiatives and Policy.

“This symposium creates an opportunity for those of us who are concerned about behavioral health in general and substance addiction to actually try to do some things to help create an infrastructure that is sustainable to help address these problems on an ongoing basis,” Hazel said.