The Fix: More Vermonters sought help for addiction during pandemic

Published: Jul. 14, 2021 at 5:08 PM EDT|Updated: Jul. 14, 2021 at 6:23 PM EDT
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RUTLAND, Vt. (WCAX) - New data shows overdose deaths in America hit a record high last year and they were up in Vermont, too.

Some 93,000 Americans died by overdose in 2020, a 29% increase from the year before.

In Vermont, opioid deaths increased by 38% last year, rising to 157 in 2020 from 114 in 2019.

The state also estimates that between 15,000 and 20,000 Vermonters with opioid use disorder need treatment but as of June, only 9,300 are getting it.

Our Olivia Lyons spoke with leaders at an addiction treatment center in Rutland to find out whether COVID had an effect on their services.

At West Ridge Center, people suffering from addiction receive a full physical and psychosocial exam. Some receive medication-assisted treatment, like methadone or buprenorphine.

“I thought the pandemic would scare people and keep them at home, but in fact, perhaps because they were scared and had to be at home, that’s what drove them into treatment,” said Faith Stone, the program director at the West Ridge Center.

During the pandemic, the West Ridge Center saw an increase of over 15% more people coming to use their services.

Some people lost their jobs or were not making as much money, no longer having the funds for illicit drugs. This may have caused them to become ill and get help.

“Despite having COVID, we had higher admissions than in the previous years,” said Dr. Saeed Ahmed of the Rutland Regional Medical Center.

Most of those who received services at West Ridge Center are new faces.

A record number of Americans died by overdose in 2020. Encouraging people to seek help and removing the stigma surrounding addiction are ways to combat that rising number.

“Hundreds and thousands of people dying of opioid overdoses, not necessarily because they don’t have access to treatment but some people have not come forward to seek their treatment,” Ahmed said.

Rapid access to medication, otherwise known as RAM, is a statewide initiative Rutland County takes part in. It’s a collaboration between multiple medical centers with the goal to get folks into treatment within three days of seeking help.

“If somebody shows up at the door and we can treat them that day or the next day versus a week later, where they have now kind of fallen into the cracks, we lose them,” Stone said.

During treatment, individual and group therapy is encouraged where clinicians speak with patients about life scenarios that can trigger a relapse.

“Finding yourself in situations where you are accompanied by and in places where you’ve used before, environmental stressors, homelessness,” Stone said.

Among many other scenarios-- a sudden influx of money, for example, stimulus checks.

Stone agrees with Ahmed and says she believes there are still a lot of people who have not sought treatment and part of it is the continued stigma toward the medication provided as treatment.

“If we can provide somebody with a medication that keeps them abstinent from substances and takes away those risky behaviors, then it’s a win. It’s a win for them and it’s a win for the community,” Stone said.

Stone says 85% of their patients are testing negative for opiates.

At this time, there is no opioid treatment waiting list in Rutland County.

Related Story:

US overdose deaths hit record 93,000 in pandemic last year

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