Crime and Justice

As Vermont drug deaths drop, Brattleboro hits a record high

Used drug needles can be disposed of in special receptacles in downtown Brattleboro. Photo by Kevin O’Connor/VTDigger

BRATTLEBORO — Vermont recently reported its opioid-related death rate decreased for the first time in six years, but this town that tops state overdose tallies just recorded its largest monthly fatality figure ever.

As this southeastern hub of about 12,000 people sheltered in place because of the Covid-19 pandemic, four locals died from drugs in April — compared with 10 casualties here for all of last year.

“It is concerning,” Brattleboro Police Chief Michael Fitzgerald said in response. “You’re doing really, really well on the numbers, and then you get this.”

Brattleboro — the first exit off Interstate 91 and the nearest Vermont community to the New England heroin-and-fentanyl hotspots of Holyoke, Massachusetts, and Hartford, Connecticut — sparked headlines this past winter when drug-related vehicle break-ins rose 411%.

The Vermont Health Department hoped the tide was turning this spring when it announced statewide drug deaths dropped 15% from 130 in 2018 to 111 in 2019 — the first decline since former Gov. Peter Shumlin dedicated his 2014 State of the State address to fighting opioid abuse.

But totals in the state’s largest city of Burlington, the capital region and especially southern Vermont remain high. Brattleboro and surrounding Windham County reported 17 deaths last year — the same number of fatalities as the much more populous Chittenden County. The total represented nearly a ninefold rise from the year after Shumlin’s speech, when two people died of drug-related causes.

Brattleboro Police thought 2020 was off to a promising start with fewer overdoses and no deaths in January, February and March. After sparking a winter of public complaints, drug-related vehicle break-ins also decreased. Then came the four separate casualties in April.

“We’re seeing our overdoses go down, but it’s frustrating to see our fatalities go up,” Fitzgerald said.

Other Vermont communities, although seeing a rise in overdoses during the pandemic, aren’t reporting an increase in resulting deaths.

“I think it’s by grace that we aren’t spiking across the state,” said Jackie Corbally, high-risk behavior manager for the City of Burlington.

Brattleboro leaders can’t pinpoint whether the local deaths were triggered by a “bad batch” of heroin or fentanyl, or whether people were trying to escape the pandemic, were alone and without help, or was related to the recent federal stimulus payments.

“Sometimes that kind of extra money can be too enticing,” said ‎Suzie Walker, executive director of Brattleboro’s Turning Point, one of 12 recovery centers in the state. “It’s a very challenging time right now. Because of the shutdown and the extra anxiety and boredom and loneliness, that puts people at a special risk for relapse or escalating their use.”

Social services providers have found the pandemic challenging as well. Turning Point has had to shift its usual in-person support and outreach to telephone and online efforts. The nearby AIDS Project of Southern Vermont’s syringe services program is continuing to collect used needles, albeit curbside, where it’s also distributing fentanyl test strips and the overdose-reversing nasal spray Narcan.

“We’re seeing an already complex problem is even more complex now,” Walker said.

A sign advertises daily Zoom meetings at Brattleboro’s Turning Point recovery center. Photo by Kevin O’Connor/VTDigger

Brattleboro’s location doesn’t help, as drugs sold cheaply in such cities as Boston and New York fetch more in rural areas with less supply than demand.

“Geography plays a big part,” Fitzgerald said. “You can sell drugs up here for more money than you can further south. We’re right here in a tri-state area, right off the Interstate. Why would you take a chance being stopped by law enforcement by going any further north?”

In response, police are working with area health and human service providers on Project CARE — Community Approach to Recovery and Engagement — to connect people who overdose or face arrest for minor drug offenses with local treatment options.

“We’re not soft on crime, but we’ve got to recognize the difference between those who victimize others, those who make a bad decision and those who need our help,” Fitzgerald said. “You’re still going to be held accountable for the crimes you have committed, but if someone says, ‘I need help,’ we can get them what they need.”

Social services providers, for their part, are contemplating how to safely reopen their spaces, either through individual appointments, small groups or outdoor meetings.

“We’re trying to find ways to ease back into business cautiously,” Walker said. “If we can keep people alive long enough, then we hope that at some point, they’ll find recovery and a better life.”

Until then, police say no Vermonter should be lulled by news of declining numbers.

“This is something that we have to stay on,” Fitzgerald said. “We’ve got a lot of work to do.”

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