BENNINGTON — Opioid overdose deaths across the state continue to rise during the pandemic, with the numbers on track to outpace those recorded in the three previous years.
Some 109 Vermonters have died from accidental or unknown opioid overdoses as of September, according to the latest data from the Vermont Department of Health. Six of the people who died were from Bennington County.
With 23 death certificates for the period still pending — and three more months left in the year, 2020 is looking likely to record a new high.
In the past decade, 2018 saw the most number of overdose deaths: 130. Last year was second, with 111 deaths, followed by 110 in 2017.
The health department believes the state of life during the coronavirus pandemic is a contributing factor in the rise in overdoses. 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.
Besides death and illness, the pandemic has also brought business closures, job losses and social isolation.
The department said people who are experiencing depression or anxiety during this time may be using substances as a coping mechanism.
More people also 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 chain may have gotten disrupted, and they’re getting unfamiliar quality of drugs from new or unknown sources.
The state’s latest opioid fatality data, released last month, shows also that many deaths involved fentanyl use.
Since 2016, fentanyl has been the most commonly seen drug in overdose deaths. It overtook prescription opioids (without fentanyl) and heroin, which were often seen in the first half of the 2000s.
Amid this bleak landscape, recovery coaches say many people continue to stay sober despite the challenges brought by the pandemic.
“We can’t let this win,” said Tom Haley, director of the Turning Point Center in Bennington. “People are finding ways to help each other and are adjusting.”