Addiction services stretched thin as substance abuse soars in Burlington

Published: Oct. 6, 2021 at 5:59 PM EDT
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BURLINGTON, Vt. (WCAX) - Substance abuse has soared during the pandemic and now Burlington police say there is nearly three times the number of opioid overdoses in the city this year compared to just two years ago.

Howard Center employees say they’re trying to get resources into the hands of the people who need them the most, but staffing issues are making their job even harder.

“I think people have been more isolated. I think people have been struggling more with mental health and other triggers, and unfortunately, that combined with the potency of fentanyl primarily has been really tragic,” Dan Hall said.

Hall is the director of outpatient services at the Howard Center in Burlington and has been working there for 14 years. He says this is one of the most difficult times he remembers at the center.

“A significant staffing shortage both in the substance use and mental health treatment world is making it a really hard time and really challenging to provide all the services we want to,” Hall said.

The center offers outpatient services along with a street outreach team that can respond to incidents. They also have programs such as syringe exchange, Narcan distribution and fentanyl test kits. And they give people same-day access to suboxone.

However, the increase in overdoses and a decrease in staffing has led to a situation that sometimes makes it difficult to respond right away.

Around the country, overdoses are up and Burlington is no exception.

Statistics from January until early October over the last five years show a gradual decline for a couple of years, but then overdoses almost double from 2019 to 2020. And we’ve surpassed 100 this year.

  • 2017 - 54
  • 2018 - 43
  • 2019 - 38
  • 2020 - 72
  • 2021 - 104

Hall espouses the benefits of a data-driven program called Commstat. It started in 2016 and involves monthly meetings between dozens of stakeholders, including the Howard Center, the city and the police. They look at data like the prescribing habits of area physicians and find solutions like reducing treatment waitlists.

Mayor Miro Weinberger says the pandemic pushed more people toward substance abuse, so the city is going to double down on efforts to make progress once again.

“This multistakeholder effort is the only way that I know to try to make progress here because different aspects of this problem are shared amongst all these different organizations in the community. So, yes, we are going to continue to meet in this multi-agency way to try to address the problem,” said Weinberger, D-Burlington.

The Commstat effort is also supported by Acting Burlington Police Chief Jon Murad who says he’s seen it make a real difference in the community.

“What we’ve learned is certainly my profession and policing is not the way to solve the overdose problem. We can’t arrest our way out of this problem, handcuffs aren’t the solution to this problem,” Murad said.

The Howard Center also tells me that making sure Narcan is available for first responders to use, even making sure storefronts have them, can save someone who is struggling. In fact, the Howard Center tells me that since 2013, Narcan has helped reverse 1,800 overdoses in the area.

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