BENNINGTON — “There is a little hope on the horizon,” Todd Salvesvold told the Bennington Select Board on Monday night. Then, for good luck, he knocked on wood – the wooden podium – as he delivered the first relatively good news on the substance abuse front in recent memory.
Fatal overdoses statewide have dropped this year to 43, compared to 51 at this point in 2021; non-fatal drug overdoses have declined from 34.5 per 10,000 emergency room visits to 21.2; the prescribing of opiates by physicians in Vermont has dropped by 54 percent since 2016; and perhaps best of all, an experienced organization is seriously considering opening a Hub (a comprehensive opioid treatment program) in a commercial area of Bennington, hopefully in about a year.
“I don’t want to jinx it,” Salvesvold said. But, he added, “There is a little bit of hope now.”
Salvesvold, a registered nurse, is an employee of Southwestern Vermont Medical Center who serves as community health team leader for the area’s Blueprint for Health, He has watched the drug overdose numbers skyrocket through the pandemic, with people suffering from addiction unable to meet one-on-one with counselors or access many of the services needed to become and stay sober.
However, he told the board, those services and face-to-face counseling are back. In addition, the overdose treatment drug Narcan is widely available, even to friends, families and co-workers of people struggling with addiction to help prevent fatal overdoses.
“So we are headed in the right direction after what I can assure you were two terrible years,” he said. “I can tell you the pandemic just absolutely caused havoc in terms of overdoses.”
Last year, Southern Vermont was particularly hard-hit with fatal overdoses, according to the Department of Health. Bennington County experience one or two per month, for a total of 16; Windham County had a total of 20; and Rutland experienced 28. Bennington’s numbers were essentially double Chittenden County’s per-capital fatal overdose statistics.
“The southern part of the state tends to get beat up a little bit more … really seems to take the brunt of this epidemic,” he said.
The hope of a Hub site in Bennington is especially important, Salvesvold said – and several community members at the meeting spoke up in agreement. He would not identify the organization he’s been working with, but assured the board they offer a ‘well established program.” The Hub would not be located in a residential area; it would be sited in a commercial part of the town, he said.
“It’s not confirmed,” Salvesvold cautioned.
“I am very happy to hear that Bennington may become a Hub in the next year,” said Select Board Chairwoman Jeannie Jenkins. “It would make a tremendous difference for individuals who are currently traveling long distances to obtain treatment. Given the data that Todd shared concerning Bennington County’s per capita fatal overdose numbers, it seems long overdue.
“Bennington’s overwhelming support for transition recovery housing, services from Pathways VT, and the roles that SVMC, Turning Point, United Counseling Services and other non-profits play in supporting these efforts is a credit to the community as a whole,” she said.
Salvesvold said Vermont’s unique Hub and Spoke treatment system has been successful. The Hubs, which are fewer in number and located around the state, provide comprehensive medical and counseling recovery services to help stabilize those who are addicted; the Spokes, which are more numerous, provide maintenance services to help them stay sober.
Because there is no Hub in Bennington, people have to travel to Brattleboro, Rutland or North Adams for vital, intense treatment. Salvesvold estimated there are about 100 people in Bennington who require Hub services.
For those with transportation or other issues that prevent them from traveling long distances, help is out of reach. Having a Hub in Bennington will be significant in the fight against addiction, he said.
Not all the news was positive. Salvesvold noted that 91 percent of fatal overdoses involve the synthetic drug fentanyl. Fentanyl doesn’t “bind” well with the chemicals used to mix with it, causing high concentrations of pure fentanyl to slip down into the bottom of a bag, leading to a deadly, potent dose and too often fatal overdose.
Worse still, fentanyl is showing up in other drugs, including cocaine and marijuana. And while the fentanyl comes to Bennington County from New York City, the county is experiencing a rising number of methamphetamine cases, a drug that comes from Boston.
So, he said, “some geography may be at play” in Southern Vermont’s drug problems.
Salvesvold’s comments were especially relevant as the board also prepared to hear from Bennington Police Chief Paul Doucette on the town’s growing problem with drugs, guns and violence. Doucette touched on the connection during his comments to the board.
“Addiction treatment is absolutely desperately needed in the state of Vermont,” Doucette said. “How do we curb some of the violent crime we’re seeing? There has to be a reduction in the use of illicit narcotics ... If we see a decrease in drug use, I firmly believe we will see a decrease in drug-related crime. Fortunately, we live in a great community; unfortunately we’re very close to New York City and Springfield and Holyoke.”