Vermont sees rise in drinking during pandemic

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BENNINGTON — A client of the local recovery center recently went out to buy a jump rope. She ended up bringing home a bottle of vodka from a nearby liquor store.

People recovering from substance abuse face daily struggles, which have been exacerbated by living conditions during the coronavirus pandemic. Since March 31, for instance, the state has ordered big-box retailers to limit customer traffic by suspending in-person purchases of non-essential items like sports equipment.

Sticking to a routine, such as exercising, is critical to many people in recovery. With gyms closed, one client of the Turning Point Center in Bennington planned to work out at home with a jump rope — until the person realized Walmart had temporarily stopped selling them.

"As they left Walmart, they realized the liquor store was open, and instead of going home, they stopped and bought vodka," said Julea Larsen, a recovery coach at the center. "How is liquor an essential item but buying a jump rope isn't?"

Recovery support groups are now seeing a significant volume of drinking-related calls, a side-effect of social-distancing measures during the pandemic.

The majority of calls coming in to the state's recently launched alcohol and drug support center, VT Helplink, involves drinking. Since the platform launched on March 27 — two days after Gov. Phil Scott ordered Vermonters to shelter in place — approximately 57 percent of all its calls have been related to alcohol, according to the state health department. Another 24 percent have to do with heroin or other opioids.

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Treatment providers are also reporting an increase in people using alcohol, said Cynthia Seivwright, director of the health department's division of alcohol and drug abuse programs.

"That's one of the things that you see happen when people get isolated," she said, explaining that social isolation causes depression, which leads some people to drink more. "This is something we've been concerned about."

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Easy access to alcoholic beverages is apparently a factor, as the Bennington recovery center has seen.

Turning Point Center registered around 120 alcohol-related calls in April, representing a 35 percent spike during the pandemic, Larsen said. The callers range from people saying they're drinking more and wondering if they're alcoholics to those asking for a referral to a treatment center. They also include folks reaching out on behalf of family members who have a drinking problem.

Some people in recovery have apparently gone back to drinking, too. Besides not having their usual support groups, some have also lost jobs in the pandemic-related economic decline and are still waiting for their unemployment checks.

"They start to get the mindset of panic ... and they go back to old behaviors," said Larsen, explaining that drinking our drugs provide a sense of comfort during these unpredictable times.

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In comparison, Larsen said the center received 40-60 calls related to opiates in April, or a 15 percent increase. But she noted that this doesn't reflect the full picture of opioid activity in the area, because users have always been skeptical of outside help, especially when they're involved in criminal cases.

Turning Point has emphasized that its services continue though its office is closed to walk-in clients. Peer recovery groups, such as Alcoholics Anonymous, continue to meet online. Recovery coaching sessions are being held via calls, video calls or, if necessary, in-person with the proper safety precautions. Peer coaches remain on call to see emergency room patients who would like to begin their journey to recovery.

When asked if the state considered the impact of suspending sports equipment sales during the pandemic, the Agency of Commerce and Community Development underscored that only in-person transactions were disallowed.

"Items could still be purchased via online or phone and picked-up or delivered," agency spokesman Nate Formalarie told the Banner. He added that the state has announced retail stores could start resuming normal operations on Monday, though guidelines from the agency were still forthcoming.

Contact Tiffany Tan at ttan@benningtonbanner.com or @tiffgtan on Facebook and Twitter.


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