BENNINGTON — It’s confirmed: 2020 has become Vermont’s deadliest year for opioid overdoses in at least the past decade. And the death toll is expected to increase as the state analyzes outstanding data.
Between January and November last year, 134 Vermonters died of accidental opioid overdoses — eclipsing the record-high 130 overdose deaths that the state saw in 2018. Southern Vermont has been hit particularly hard: 60 of those who died last year were county residents of either Bennington, Rutland, Windham or Windsor.
These are the highest fatal overdoses Vermont has seen since 2010, according to readily available state health department data. The figures for December 2020 are still out, as well as the cause of death in 21 deaths between January and November.
People who monitor drug trends foresaw a new high for overdose deaths when numbers almost everywhere began climbing after the coronavirus pandemic hit last year.
“I think it became clear as the months went on that it was likely to occur,” said Stephanie Thompson, a Vermont public health analyst with the New England High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area. “Seeing the monthly figures and understanding the increases across the nation, it was alarming and remains so.”
Preliminary nationwide data shows an upward trend in opioid fatalities last year. Some 59,069 people in the U.S. died of an opioid overdose in the 12 months ending in June 2020, an increase of 11,839 deaths (or 25 percent) over the previous year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
In New England during that same period, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Maine and Rhode Island also saw overdose deaths rise, according to CDC data provided by Thompson.
DEATHS DURING PANDEMIC
The Vermont Department of Health believes the pandemic — which has brought massive job losses, social isolation and disruption of norms — is a contributing factor in the increased overdose deaths. 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 and after peaking in 2018.
People experiencing depression or anxiety because of the pandemic may be trying to cope by using substances, said the health department.
Due to social distancing guidelines, more people are believed to be using opioids alone. If they overdose, no one is around to call for help or administer the antidote naloxone.
Health officials speculate that users’ normal drug supply chains may have gotten disrupted too, and they’re getting unfamiliar quality of drugs from new or unknown sources.
Some treatment and recovery centers have also reported opioid misuse among people who used federal stimulus money to buy drugs, said Cynthia Seivwright, director of the health department’s division of alcohol and drug abuse programs.
“The stimulus checks, they were a trigger for some people,” she said in an interview Friday, citing as an example a man who was in recovery but overdosed after receiving the money.
As national leaders consider a third round of stimulus payments, Seivwright said the state health department is working with local partners to help people in recovery be better prepared to handle this potential trigger.
“If you have a recovery coach, they can help you to figure out what to do with that money,” she said, “to give you just that window of time that maybe you can reach out to somebody.”
Meanwhile, the state has apparently strengthened the assistance it offers through VTHelplink. The platform, launched last spring, features a call center that provides free information as well as referrals on substance-use prevention, treatment and recovery services throughout the state.
Other state programs also remain in place, such as rapid access to medication-assisted treatment and the distribution of “harm reduction kits” that include naloxone.