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Sixth annual addiction symposium highlights dual pandemics in Pa

The global COVID-19 pandemic forced events and conferences to turn to online platforms or cancel altogether. For Penn State Addiction Center for Translation’s annual symposium on Dec. 3, canceling was not an option as Pennsylvania faces not one, but two pandemics.

“We realize the addiction community has the double whammy of dealing with its own epidemic in the midst of a worldwide infectious disease pandemic,” said Dr. Kevin Black, interim dean of Penn State College of Medicine during the Zoom event.
The 18% increase in overdose deaths in 2020 was not lost on anyone in attendance and emphasizes the important role of the Penn State Addiction Center for Translation.


A graphic shows the outline of a human head. The top of the head is flipped open like a lid and three gears are visible inside.

Attendees heard how the center is addressing this crisis through enhancing addiction education, improving treatment, increasing community access to information and resources and engaging in translational research to advance understanding of the disease of addiction and to develop novel treatments.

Patricia “Sue” Grigson, chair of the Department of Neural and Behavioral Sciences and director of the Penn State Addiction Center for Translation, announced that College of Medicine and University Park researchers are working with more than $16 million from the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism and the National Institute on Drug Abuse. This funding received over the past few years is essential to foster collaboration and answer the field’s most pressing questions.

The center works closely with the state, which has been combatting this crisis, too. Dr. Rachel Levine, Pennsylvania Secretary of Health, highlighted the state’s efforts, including a disaster declaration for the opioid crisis signed by Governor Wolf. “This can be such a challenging time,” said Levine, “This is the time to enhance our prevention and rescue efforts.”


Susan Sherman, professor in the Department of Health, Behavior and Society at Johns Hopkins University, was the keynote speaker. Her research and publications focus on the social determinants of health and structural interventions among people who use drugs, including female sex workers. During her keynote presentation, she explained that substance use disorders are not just clinical, but also social and structural. Harmful laws, few job opportunities, limited access to healthy foods and housing shortages all escalate harms related to drug use.

Sherman’s research uses the core principle of harm reduction, a solution that creates the conditions that reduce the possibility of harm in the midst of an environment that maximizes harm. For example, harm reduction can include distribution of the drug naloxone to reverse an overdose, instruction on safer ways to use substances in order to decrease the likelihood of adverse events, clean needles, supplies for safe injecting and smoking, first aid and hygiene kits, connection to community services and more. At its core, harm reduction is about respect and dignity.

While social distancing makes it difficult to access many harm reduction and treatment programs, Sherman acknowledged that COVID-19 provides an opportunity to reevaluate and scale up services that work best in communities. Sherman was not the only one to offer hope amidst the conversations. “Treatment works and recovery is possible,” said Levine, “We must provide hope.”

If you missed the event and would like the Zoom recordings, please email Sarah Ballard, coordinator at Penn State Addiction Center for Translation, at

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