A high number of overdoses continues to plague Burlington

A high number of overdoses continues to plague Burlington

Naloxone or Narcan opiate overdose reversal medication. File photo by Mike Dougherty/VTDigger

Burlington officials have called the city’s recent opioid overdose numbers “alarming” because numbers that climbed dramatically in 2022 remain high.

According to data from the Burlington Police Department, 251 overdoses were reported in 2022. The department’s numbers include any overdose report that police responded to, including fatal and non-fatal incidents.

During an update to the Police Commission on Tuesday evening, Acting Chief Jon Murad highlighted the numbers the department has seen so far this year: 60 overdoses from Jan. 1 to March 15.

Murad told the commission the trend was “extremely alarming.” In an interview on Friday, Mayor Miro Weinberger said he was “very concerned.”

“The nature of the opioid crisis has changed dramatically in this community with fentanyl in Vermont and we need to dramatically change our response,” Weinberger said. “And I’m doing everything I can to achieve that, but we need a lot more.”

During his update to the police commission, Murad also cited monthly totals, which show that overdoses suddenly jumped last summer. The 31 overdoses recorded in June were double the total for May, and monthly totals have remained high ever since.

According to a map of overdoses in 2022 shared by the city, most were reported around downtown.

The trend in Burlington is mirrored across the state. According to a March 13 report from the Vermont Department of Health237 fatal overdoses were reported in the state in 2022, including 48 in Chittenden County.

The overdose death rate per 100,000 population in Chittenden County was 29.3 in 2022, according to the health department report. That’s lower than many other counties, especially in southern Vermont, where Rutland and Windham counties had rates of 56.7 and 61.6, respectively.

People who work at local agencies have acknowledged the recent spike in overdoses and pointed to drugs like fentanyl and xylazine that have entered the opioid supply stream and made them increasingly dangerous.

The state health department reported that most opioid deaths in Vermont last year — 221 of 237 — involved fentanyl. Xylazine, which is not an opioid, was detected in 1968. A major concern with this drug is its resistance to naloxone, a drug that reverses overdose, commonly known as Narcan.

Kim Mercer, director of marketing and development at Chittenden County’s Turning Point Center in Burlington, pointed to state data showing the rising prevalence of fentanyl as the primary explanation for the spike in incidents in the city.

“More than theories,” she said, there is “evidence that cheap and plentiful fentanyl is driving overdoses.”

Dan Hall, director of ambulatory services at the Howard Center, agreed that fentanyl contributes to overdoses and deaths. But he said another factor was “the psychosocial stressors occurring in the community” as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic.

The Howard Center runs its Safe Recovery program in downtown Burlington, which Hall described as a low-barrier, anonymous walk-in center where people with substance use disorders can swap needles and recover from Narcan, as well as fentanyl and xylazine test strips.

Visitors can also obtain treatment services, including drug treatments with Suboxone, as well as services with social workers and nurses.

Hall said the office hands out Narcan to everyone who walks through the door, and Mercer said the same thing happens at the Turning Point Center. The Federal Food and Drug Administration recently announced that Narcan will soon be available over the counter.

Turning Point focuses more on recovery services. It also employs staff members who are notified by the University of Vermont Medical Center Emergency Department when patients arrive with a substance use emergency. In 80% of those cases, the patient follows up with Turning Point, Mercer said.

“Bringing people back after an overdose is just the first step,” she said. “And often people are ready when they’re at that point, that crisis point. They are ready to get help.

Another new approach to downtown is run by the nonprofit Vermonters for Criminal Justice Reform, which has launched a program which rewards people, often with money, simply for showing up for a treatment program, no drug testing required.

Weinberger touted the program and said the city government sent federal Covid-19 relief money to help pay for it.

“They’re pioneering this innovative new strategy that combines medically assisted treatment with this contingency management and it looks like it’s having a positive impact,” Weinberger said.

Weinberger and the city council hope to add to existing substance use resources downtown, particularly with overdose prevention sites, which are places where people can use drugs they have already obtained, but in a supervised setting where trained personnel can intervene in the event. of an overdose.

In March, the council passed a resolution calling for overdose prevention sites in the city, and Weinberger said he supports the idea. But the city would need state approval for the sites.

Weinberger serves on the state’s Opioid Regulation Advisory Board, which was formed by the Legislative Assembly to help determine how to spend the money from a legal settlement of prescription opioid manufacturers. He said he voted to spend $1 million of the settlement money on overdose prevention sites, but the idea was rejected.

Committee members who supported funding for overdose prevention sites secured a commitment from the rest of the committee to discuss the idea further, Weinberger said. “It is possible that this could change after future testimony comes in,” he said.

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