MONTPELIER >> Over the past several years, the number of deaths from prescription drugs in Vermont has leveled off and even begun to go down. But new statistics show that the number of deaths from heroin and its powerful painkiller cousin, fentanyl, has spiked.
Statewide in 2012, there were 15 deaths in Vermont from heroin and fentanyl, according to statistics from the Vermont Health Department. Last year, the figure was 53.
The information is in a detailed data brief released this week by the Vermont Health Department. The brief goes beyond statistics found in a similar report given to the Legislature.
"Importantly, I think, we've made a difference in terms of the prescription opiates because they are leveling off or going down," said Dr. Harry Chen, the Vermont health commissioner. "We're extremely challenged by heroin and fentanyl. The reality is, it's not just here, it's all over the country."
Confronting what Democratic Gov. Peter Shumlin has called the crisis of addiction prescription drugs, heroin and, more recently, drugs such as fentanyl a top priority across the state, from the governor's office down to the community level. The efforts appear to be paying off in at least one area, with fewer deaths from overdoses of prescription drugs.
The number of people dying from overdoses of prescription drugs is down from 38 in 2010 to 32 last year, but still up from 25 in 2014. The total number of people to die in Vermont last year from heroin, fentanyl, prescription opioid drug overdoses, including suicides, and acute alcohol poisoning jumped to 108 in 2015 from 74 in 2010.
The big jump noted by the statistical data brief published by the Health Department found the spike in heroin and fentanyl deaths to a statewide total of 53 from 42 in 2014.
The number of overdose deaths from the opiates went from one each in Vermont's two largest counties in 2010 to 16 last year in Chittenden County and 11 in Rutland County.
The Chittenden County number was down by one from 2014, but the Rutland County figure more than doubled from five in 2014.
Of Vermont's 14 counties, only Addison had no deaths reported last year from heroin or fentanyl. Windsor County had the third most deaths at seven, followed by Franklin County with three.
Thinking long-term, Chen says the long-term solution must be comprehensive, with treatment and techniques like prescription monitoring systems and, backing up even further, finding out what prompts some people to use illegal drugs.
"Pain comes in all shapes and sizes," Chen said. "I think all of us know it's more than just physical pain, ultimately that leads people to addiction."