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Opioid deaths already outpacing last year’s record numbers

VERMONT — Last year, Vermont recorded the highest number of opioid overdose deaths the state has ever seen — 210. This year could bring worse news if the latest numbers are any indication.

From January through August, according to the latest state health department data, 151 Vermonters died from an opioid overdose — 14 more than in the same period last year.

For most of this year, the monthly death tally generally tracked with the 2021 figures. Since July, however, a gap has been widening, fueled by the powerful synthetic opioid fentanyl. If the numbers stay on this upward track, Vermont could again see an unprecedented number of opioid fatalities.

When asked whether the Vermont Department of Health is concerned that 2022 would surpass the record set last year, officials said they didn’t want to make projections.

“We are careful to not infer a trend, because the data can change significantly on a month-to-month basis,” said Nicole Rau Mitiguy, the department’s substance misuse prevention manager, in an email. “The Department remains committed to our work in addressing overdoses statewide.”

After a drop in overdose deaths in 2019, the numbers started climbing again in 2020, when the coronavirus pandemic hit Vermont. The health emergency caused major upheavals, such as mass unemployment, housing loss, food insecurity and the suspension of some medical and social services.

People’s lives were upended with fear, anxiety, depression, stress, isolation and loneliness, which public health experts have said led some to start using substances and others to relapse.

Although COVID-19 has eased its grip on people’s daily lives, recovery experts say that letting go of substances will take an even longer time. 

“I don’t think just because the pandemic is over that it’s just going to bounce back to the way it was,” said Gary De Carolis, executive director of Recovery Partners of Vermont, a network of recovery centers in the state. “In the recovery centers, we’re not seeing the same numbers of people coming in as we were before this happened.”

He said recovery center workers are now ramping up their outreach activities to connect with more people in their communities.

“Go where they are,” De Carolis said, “whether it’s in a hotel or it’s on the street.”

The state health department said the types of drugs on the streets are also affecting the opioid death toll. In the past year, officials have raised red flags over the growing prevalence of the animal sedative xylazine in the illicit opioid market. The drug is not approved for human use.

As of August, according to department data, xylazine was involved in 43 out of 151, or nearly 30%, of this year’s opioid fatalities. That is double the rate for the same months last year, when xylazine figured in 20 out of 137 fatalities.  

Because xylazine is not an opioid, it does not respond to naloxone, the opioid overdose reversal drug. Xylazine-laced opioids can mean a higher risk of death, particularly since there’s no quick way to test for the drug’s presence, unlike fentanyl.

“Xylazine has certainly complicated overdose prevention because there is no test strip or current antidote for it,” Rau Mitiguy earlier said.

The department is encouraging people to reach out to VTHelplink.org, the state’s drug and alcohol support center, to learn more about available treatment and recovery services.

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