WVU pledges to help city fight drugs

BUCKHANNON — The president of West Virginia University has pledged to help Buckhannon fight the drug epidemic that is ravaging the municipality as it tears its way through the Mountain State.

President E. Gordon Gee promised to support Buckhannon in its efforts to eradicate the opioid epidemic in a letter to Buckhannon mayor David McCauley dated Feb. 8. Gee sent the letter in response to McCauley’s Feb. 2 letter appealing to Gee for help.

“Our biggest issue, which is the universal one confronting every community in West Virginia, is the drug epidemic,” McCauley wrote in the letter. “About once a month, I read another obituary in our local newspaper of typically a young person, 20-something years old who has succumbed to overdose. More often than that, I read about yet another young resident being arrested and jailed for drug involvement. The demarcation between drug users and dealers has become very blurred. Just about every family I know here has been impacted by someone in their lives battling drug addiction. We are failing as a society to address this horrible problem that robs so many of our citizens of their very souls.”

According to 2015 data from the Centers for Disease Control, West Virginia topped the list of the five states with the highest rates of death due to drug overdose in the nation. The CDC data reveals that per every 100,000 people, 41.5 died of drug overdose death in the Mountain State; 34.3 died in New Hampshire; 29.9 died in Kentucky; 29.9 died in Ohio; and 28.2 died in Rhode Island. The CDC website explains that opioids — both prescription and illicit — are the main cause of drug overdose deaths. Deaths due to opioid overdose totaled 33,091 in 2015, and according to the CDC, opioid overdoses have quadrupled since 1999.

McCauley appealed to Gee for help, saying drug abuse must be addressed in a “comprehensive” way.

“We simply cannot continue to do things the ways they have always been done,” McCauley wrote. “We have glaring weaknesses throughout our health care, justice and employment systems concerning detoxification, long-term counseling and recovery placements and opportunities, preparing recovered addicts for re-entry into the work force and again becoming contributing citizens, convincing and networking with employers to offer second chances, and perhaps most importantly, establishing professionals to help us accomplish all of the foregoing.”

McCauley’s letter goes on to note that, “there is an immense academic component to realizing potential, real solutions.”

“I am firmly convinced that we have to develop a holistic model that affords people hope — hope for our addicts, their families — everyone needs hope,” the mayor wrote. “I hear tell it springs eternal.”

The mayor’s letter concludes by suggesting that Buckhannon is “the perfect laboratory to establish a template that once successful could be plugged into the many other communities in our region that far more resemble us than are distinguishable from us.” A number of factors make Buckhannon the “perfect laboratory,” including its central location, the presence of St. Joseph’s Hospital, its size of about 6,000 residents and the fact that West Virginia Wesleyan College is located here.

Gee replied in a letter dated Feb. 8 that he could not agree more “that the challenges faced in small and large communities across this country and, in our instance in West Virginia, are nearly paralyzing when it comes to addiction. You should know that the University is fully engaged in combating this evil.”

Gee informed McCauley that Dr. Clay Marsh, the university’s vice president for health sciences, is partnering with a slew of entities around the state to “bring a focus and community-based effort in this endeavor.” Gee says that he will ask Marsh to contact McCauley directly to discuss in further detail the efforts the university is undertaking.

“But, be assured that you have a committed and available partner in West Virginia University,” Gee’s letter concludes.

As of Tuesday, McCauley said he was still awaiting the promised response from Marsh.

“We’re still waiting for that, but if Dr. Gee says it’s coming then it will be coming,” McCauley said. “We’re very excited. But that excitement, I think needs to be tempered. I don’t want to keep just talking the talk. We need to walk the walk. I’m tired of everybody saying we need to tackle the drug problem; we need to start actually making some programmatic changes.”

The mayor made one firm promise — “We’re going to start doing some things as a city differently,” he said.

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