BENNINGTON — Vermont health officials joined national experts Wednesday in voicing concern about the record number of Vermonters and Americans dying from drug overdoses this year, citing increased availability of the deadly synthetic opioid fentanyl, and increased isolation and depression created by the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Before COVID, we were going in the right direction” in reducing overdose deaths, said Cynthia Seivwright, director of the Vermont’s Alcohol and Drug Abuse Program with the Vermont Department of Health. But the state saw a 70 percent increase in the number of overdose deaths over this time last year.
In Vermont, there were 129 overdose deaths reported through August – an all-time high — compared to the three-year average of 88, the Health Department reported. This year, there were 11 overdose deaths recorded in both Bennington and Windham Counties.
Vermont was not alone in seeing a steep increase in deaths. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention estimated more than 100,000 Americans died of drug overdoses in one year, a record number and a 30 percent increase from the previous year. According to the CDC, drug overdoses now surpass deaths from car crashes, guns and even flu and pneumonia.
The number is “devastating,” Katherine Keyes, a Columbia University expert on drug abuse issues, told the Associated Press. “It’s a magnitude of overdose death that we haven’t seen in this country.”
Seivwright said the pandemic prompted people to isolate and use drugs alone, with no one around to administer life-saving Narcan or call for help in the event of an overdose. Also because of the pandemic, those drug users were sometimes forced to find new dealers, and were less informed about the strength of the drugs they were taking. And depression and isolation prompted people in recovery to slip back into active drug use.
The death toll rose in all but four states — Delaware, New Hampshire, New Jersey and South Dakota — compared with the same period a year earlier. The states with largest increases were Vermont, West Virginia (62 percent) and Kentucky (55 percent), according to the AP.
Seivwright said Vermont saw a spike in overdoses when stimulus checks were received during the pandemic.
“It’s very concerning, the increases,” said Dr. Trey Dobson, chief medical officer at Southwestern Vermont Medical Center in Bennington. Although Dobson is aware of the skyrocketing overdose deaths, he said his hospital isn’t actually experiencing that increase.
“Some of them don’t make it to the emergency department,” he said.
The Health Department has implemented several new programs during the past year to try and turn the numbers around, Seivwright said. Among those: Outreach workers are going out into the community to find drug users who might not know how to access services or what they need for assistance; the Syringe Services Program (commonly known as needle exchange) has expanded to provide Narcan, fentanyl test strips and more at their sites; and drug and alcohol recovery coaches are joining with law enforcement to provide help to overdose patients in emergency rooms across the state.
Dobson said SVMC has been working closely with the Turning Point Center of Bennington, a recovery organization, and other groups to provide help for addiction when an overdose case comes into the emergency room. He said 10 years ago these organizations didn’t communicate or work as well together.
“If someone presents to the emergency department seeking treatment, they had an overdose, we can treat them medically, and then the representatives of Turning Point come onsite and work right at that moment to try to get them the support they need,” Dobson said. “That is certainly making a difference.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.