New drugs complicating first responders’ overdose resources

Published: May. 24, 2023 at 6:26 PM EDT
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JOHNSON, Vt. (WCAX) - Overdose deaths continue to climb across Vermont as the tranquilizer xylazine and other drugs blunt the effectiveness of opioid reversal drugs. It’s forcing health care workers to find new ways to provide life-saving resources.

With 24 deaths recorded in February alone, Vermont’s number of opioid deaths has risen higher than the state’s three-year average. And of the 42 total opioid deaths documented through the first two months of this year, 29% of them involved xylazine and 12% involved gabapentin.

“It’s an evolving problem,” said Caroline Butler, a nurse practitioner and founder of the Johnson Health Center. Xylazine and gabapentin cannot be detected with fentanyl test strips and overdoses involving the drugs cannot be reversed with naloxone. Butler says that complicates the already difficult process of providing drug users with life-saving resources. “It’s taken us from a point where things were just really, really critical before, and pushed us even beyond that. It’s definitely a tough time for folks who are in active addiction.”

To combat this, Butler says they are updating and increasing the tools they provide to the public with the hopes of putting a dent in the increased overdose numbers. “One of the pieces that we’ve put into place is with our naloxone reversal kits we’ve added a good breathing mask so that people are able to give rescue breathing,” she said.

Staff at recovery centers say the rise in overdoses is putting a strain on their resources, but they’re still holding out hope. “There are many times where we have to see if people are looking for treatment, they can’t always get in right away. And it’s always in another county. So, we have to arrange transportation. It’s important to know that at this point -- and especially in Vermont -- that we, as the community members, we are all being impacted by this,” said Shannon Carchidi with the North Central Vermont Recovery Center in Morrisville.

Health officials say they hope more Vermonters will learn to know the signs of an overdose and carry naloxone with them to potentially save a life as the opioid crisis continues.

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