BENNINGTON — Fentanyl remains the biggest killer in Vermont’s opioid overdoses, figuring in 88 percent of last year’s overdose deaths.
The revelation came as the state health department recently reported that 157 Vermonters died of an accidental opioid overdose last year — the most since at least 2010. The latest annual figure overtakes the record-setting 130 fatal overdoses seen in 2018 and follows a decline in 2019.
The health department has tied the rise in opioid deaths to the disruptions brought by the coronavirus pandemic, such as massive job losses and intense social isolation.
Fentanyl and its analogues — both prescribed and illegally obtained — were found in 139 of last year’s 157 overdose deaths, according to a health department data brief released this week. These fentanyl-related overdoses make up the biggest number that the state has recorded since 2010, when the painkiller showed up in one case and non-fentanyl prescription opioids dominated.
A decade later, in 2020, non-fentanyl prescription opioids were found in a little over a quarter of the fatal overdoses.
“Fentanyl continues to be the primary driver of opioid-related deaths in Vermont,” the brief states.
It also notes the growing presence of cocaine among the overdose deaths. The drug was found in 58 of the cases last year, compared with four in 2010. (More than one drug can be involved in an overdose death.)
The most commonly seen deadly drug combination last year was fentanyl and cocaine, followed by fentanyl and heroin.
SOUTHERN VERMONT RESIDENTS AFFECTED
Of the people who died last year, almost half were residents of southern Vermont counties: 9 from Bennington, 20 from Rutland, 12 from Windham and 28 from Windsor.
Most of the people who died were men (69 percent). Nearly all the people were white, non-Hispanics (98 percent). Their average age was 41 years old, with more than half 30-50 years old.
The brief presents the department’s preliminary findings for 2020, since some deaths last year are still being assessed. A more comprehensive report is expected in early 2022.
This week’s data brief added three more cases to the tally for 2019, bringing its total fatal overdoses to 114. That year saw the first drop in Vermont’s overdose deaths since 2014, positive news that came from state leaders in the early weeks of the pandemic.
State health department officials have said since the summer that people experiencing depression or anxiety during the pandemic may be using substances as a coping mechanism.
They also believe that, due to social-distancing directives, more people are using opioids alone. If users overdose, no one is around to call for help or administer the antidote naloxone.
Health officials speculate that users’ normal drug supply chains may also have gotten disrupted, and they’re getting unfamiliar quality of drugs from new or unknown sources.