Startling new numbers reveal Vermont’s deadly drug problem

Published: Apr. 14, 2021 at 5:44 PM EDT
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WHITE RIVER JUNCTION, Vt. (WCAX) - Overshadowed during the coronavirus pandemic, the opioid crisis is getting worse.

New federal data out Wednesday shows opioid-related deaths are up across the country in every state but one, South Dakota.

In Vermont, fatal overdoses were up 38%.

A recent drug bust in Bennington highlights the fact that large quantities of drugs are flowing through our communities every single day. And as the trafficking continues, drug-related deaths are on the rise.

It’s an all too familiar sight-- drugs on the table-- $300,000 worth from a recent bust in Bennington. But this could be any community. And authorities say the drugs are stronger than they’ve ever been.

“If you got a bag that you think is heroin, there is probably fentanyl in there somewhere,” Hartford Deputy Police Chief Brad Vail said.

That’s one reason police say overdose deaths increased significantly during the pandemic. Stimulus money also gave users cash in their pockets and traditional in-person meeting places for those in recovery were closed.

“The social isolation, people have been using alone more which is very dangerous,” said Kelly Dougherty, the deputy commissioner of the Vermont Department of Health.

But this is not just a pandemic problem. Over the last 10 years in Vermont, fatal overdoses have been on the rise.

In 2010, there were 37 fatal ODs in Vermont and the number grew steadily. As the state vastly increased treatment access, the number of ODs declined in 2019 before spiking to 157 in 2020.

Sheila Young runs the Upper Valley Turning Point, one of several recovery centers across the region.

“I think we make a difference but it is still not enough; it is never enough,” Young said.

She says the lack of transitional housing for those trying to stay clean is a big problem.

“The housing that they are putting people in is toxic because there is so much substance use at them,” Young said.

“You could have an addict that is trying to recover, and right across the hall there could be someone who is actively using,” Vail said. “That is like putting an alcoholic into a bar and saying, ‘Hey, don’t drink.’”

State officials are doing outreach at hotels housing the homeless to supply them with the overdose reversal drug Narcan and test strips to check for the presence of fentanyl. The online resource VT Helplink is dedicated to those who want help.

“We are very proud to say that in Vermont if you would like to get medication-assisted treatment for opioid use disorder, you can get it,” Dougherty said.

Police connecting criminals directly with addiction counselors.

“We have given up on the concept of being able to arrest our way out of it,” Vail said.

In-person meetings are once again available.

“At the end of the day, it is stigma,” Young said. “If people don’t feel like they deserve help, they are not going to reach out.”

While steps are being taken to curb the problem, it is clear that it is not going away anytime soon. In White River Junction alone, there have been eight overdoses so far this year. Two were fatal.

Click here for the CDC’s Provisional Drug Overdose Death Counts.

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