BENNINGTON — A Bennington man was recently treated at the local hospital for overdosing on opioids. It was his 11th overdose in three months, a recovery coach with Bennington's Turning Point Center had learned.
Around the beginning of June, the center said it noticed an upward trend on opioid overdoses in the area.
"We hear of an overdose almost every day," recovery coach Julea Larsen said. The center's reach extends beyond Bennington County to other communities in southern Vermont and nearby towns in Massachusetts and New York.
The latest official Vermont data shows that nonfatal opioid overdoses in June more than doubled compared with the same period last year.
Out of 10,000 people who got admitted to emergency departments statewide last month, around 22 were treated for an opioid overdose — the figure in June 2019 was around 10, according to a health department report released Thursday.
Fatal overdoses were also up during the first half of the year. Some 72 Vermonters died from accidental opioid overdoses versus 48 during the same period last year, the state data shows. Two of those who died were from Bennington County.
OD rise during the pandemic
The health department believes the state of life during the coronavirus pandemic is a contributing factor in the overdose spike. The virus outbreak hit Vermont in early March, following a year in which the state's opioid overdose deaths declined for the first time since 2014.
Vermont apparently isn't the only state to be in the midst of this trend. Other New England states have also seen an increase in overdoses during the pandemic, said deputy health commissioner Kelly Dougherty.
"This is not unique to Vermont," she said in an interview, adding that the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration recently called a meeting of all New England states to talk about the general rise in overdoses in the region.
A 2018 survey by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention ranked Vermont at No. 11 on fatal opioid overdoses nationwide. This is the most recent year in which national figures are available, Dougherty said.
Vermont saw its first case of the COVID-19 coronavirus disease in early March. Later that month, in an effort to slow the virus' spread, Gov. Phil Scott instituted a stay-at-home order, which has since been relaxed.
With the need for social distancing, many businesses either closed or scaled down their operations, resulting in huge job losses statewide. Vermont's unemployment rate rose to 15.6 percent in April compared with 3.2 percent in March, according to data from the state department of labor.
People who are experiencing depression or anxiety during the pandemic may be using substances as a coping mechanism, Dougherty said. The state, she said, also has seen a bump in alcohol sales compared with the same period last year.
More people may be using opioids alone during this time, Dougherty added. This means that should they overdose, no one is around to call for help or administer the antidote naloxone.
Health officials also speculate that users' normal drug supply chains may have gotten disrupted, and they're getting unfamiliar drug quality from new or unknown sources.
Beyond the numbers
The Turning Point Center in Bennington thinks more opioid overdoses are happening beyond what official numbers show.
With naloxone becoming more widely available, some folks who overdose reportedly no longer seek medical treatment. Others have avoided hospitals for fear of getting infected with COVID-19.
"Figures don't always reflect the true reality," said Tom Hailey, the center's executive director. "There's a lot of interaction with people who suffer substance use disorder that is never reported."
The Bennington man who had experienced 11 overdoses apparently wasn't taken to the hospital till his most recent overdose.
Contact Tiffany Tan at firstname.lastname@example.org or @tiffgtan on Facebook and Twitter.