BENNINGTON — Seven Bennington County residents died from opioid overdoses between January and April, the third highest count among Vermont counties, according to the latest state data.
The figure is more than double what the county saw during the same period in the past two years. There were two such deaths both in 2019 and 2020, records from the Vermont health department show.
At the end of 2020 — Vermont’s deadliest year on record for opioids — Bennington County had nine deaths in total. This put the county somewhere in the middle of the statewide counts last year.
Bennington County’s seven deaths in the first four months of this year places it in the top three, just behind Chittenden County’s 14 and Windsor County’s eight.
The state health department said it did not yet have any information to explain the county’s higher fatality rate in recent months.
State health officials have tied the spike in opioid deaths to the intense social isolation, anxiety and depression brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as changes in drug use and distribution practices.
Social isolation is especially dangerous, according to experts in substance use disorders, because people who are using alone won’t have anyone to administer the antidote naloxone if they overdose.
Research shows that 90 percent of overdose deaths happen to people using by themselves, said Gary De Carolis, interim executive director of the Vermont Recovery Network. The network encompasses the Turning Point Center of Bennington.
It is critical, De Carolis said, for people who are using opioids to have someone with them and to have naloxone on hand. “Do whatever you can to get Narcan in your possession,” he said, referring to a widely available brand of the opioid antidote.
Isolation is also risky for people in recovery. They need to maintain personal connections and support to prevent from relapsing, Tom Hailey, the former director of Bennington’s Turning Point Center said in a previous interview.
Though Vermont has lifted the state of emergency due to the pandemic, De Carolis said recovery support systems are not all fully back in place. For instance, he said, recovery centers statewide have just started reopening their offices and residential treatment centers are still not at full capacity.
And though Vermont has the highest vaccination rate in the nation, he said some people are still wary of going back out and interacting like they did before the pandemic.
De Carolis expects the opioid fatality rate to level off first before going down. In the meantime, he is encouraging people to reach out for support.
Available resources include the Turning Point Center of Bennington (802-442-9700), Vermont Recovery Network (802-738-8998) and VT Helplink, which can be reached by dialing 2-1-1.