Opioid-related deaths through August top last year's record numbers

Opioid-related deaths through August top last year’s record numbers

Last year, Vermont recorded the highest number of opioid overdose deaths the state has ever seen. This year could bring worse news if the latest numbers are any indication.

From January to August, according to the latest data from the state health department, 151 Vermont residents died from an opioid overdose, up 14 from the same time last year.

For most of this year, the monthly death tally has generally tracked 2021 figures. Since July, however, a gap has been widening, fueled by the powerful synthetic opioid fentanyl. If the numbers stay on this upward path, Vermont could again see an unprecedented number of opioid-related deaths.

When asked if the Vermont Department of Health was concerned that 2022 could surpass the record set last year, officials said they didn’t want to make any projections.

“We are careful not to infer a trend, as the data can change significantly from month to month,” Nicole Rau Mitiguy, the department’s substance abuse prevention manager, said in an email. “The Department remains committed to our overdose response work across the state.”

After a drop in overdose deaths in 2019, the numbers started to climb again in 2020, when the coronavirus pandemic hit Vermont. The health emergency has caused major upheavals, such as mass unemployment, loss of housing, food insecurity and the suspension of some medical and social services.

People’s lives have been turned upside down by fear, anxiety, depression, stress, isolation and loneliness, which public health experts say has led some to start using substances and others to relapse.

Although Covid-19 has eased its grip on people’s daily lives, recovery experts say getting rid of the substances will take even longer.

“I don’t think just because the pandemic is over it’s just going to bounce back the way it was,” said Gary De Carolis, executive director of Recovery Partners of Vermont, a network of state recovery centers. . “In recovery centers we don’t see the same number of people coming in as before this happened.”

He said recovery center workers are now stepping up outreach to connect with more people in their communities.

“Go where they are,” De Carolis said, “whether that’s in a hotel or on the street.”

The state health department said the types of drugs on the streets also affect the opioid death toll. Over the past year, authorities have sounded the alarm over the growing prevalence of xylazine, an animal sedative, in the illicit opioid market. The drug is not approved for human use.

As of August, according to department data, xylazine was implicated in 43 of 151 deaths, or nearly 30%, of opioid-related deaths this year. That’s double the rate for the same months last year, when xylazine was in 20 of 137 deaths.

Because xylazine is not an opioid, it does not respond to naloxone, the opioid overdose reversal drug. Opioids containing xylazine may carry a higher risk of death, especially since there is no quick way to test for the presence of the drug, unlike fentanyl.

“Xylazine has certainly complicated overdose prevention because there is no current test strip or antidote,” Rau Mitiguy said earlier.

The department encourages people to contact VTHelplink, the state’s drug and alcohol support center, to learn more about available treatment and recovery services.

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