Crime and Justice

Overdoses rise at ‘alarming’ rate in Burlington and Vermont amid pandemic

Opiate overdose reversal drug naloxone, or Narcan. File photo by Mike Dougherty/VTDigger

BURLINGTON— The number of drug overdoses is rapidly increasing in Burlington and across the state as Covid-19 continues to force Vermonters to remain isolated.

In Burlington, nonfatal overdoses have increased by 76% since February, according to Jackie Corbally, the city’s high-risk behavior manager. Monthly data from the state shows a similar pattern with nearly double the amount of emergency room visits for nonfatal overdoses compared to March 2019. 

However, there has not been as dramatic an increase in fatal overdoses statewide or in Burlington. 

Last month, Vermont officials celebrated a milestone in the state’s fight against the opioid epidemic when data from 2019 released showing that the number of drug-related fatalities decreased for the first time since 2014. But according to health organizations and police departments around Vermont, signs indicate that overdoses are on the rise while use of addiction services has declined since the pandemic began.

Corbally said the uptick in overdoses may be due to more instances of fentanyl, a powerful synthetic opioid, being found in more substances aside from heroin, including cocaine and meth. The pressures associated with the Covid-19 pandemic, and measures to contain the virus, are also a potential factor. 

“For somebody in the throes of an addiction or has the predisposition to find themselves in an addiction, Covid-19 brought all those things we don’t like to see,” Corbally said. “Isolation, fear, anxiety on top of which we have seen systems basically shut down for very good reason.” 

As Covid-19 swept throughout Vermont, many services aimed at helping those struggling with addiction either closed outright or shifted to a virtual presence which is helpful for some, but not all, Corbally said. 

“We are trying to do a lot around making sure people know that there’s a helpline they can call, that there are resources, but also keep in mind that the Chittenden County Turning Point Center went virtual,” she said. “That’s great for some people, but recovery for a lot of folks is about having that human connection. The virtual concept didn’t work for them.” 

The swirling storm of fear, anxiety and isolation also makes for a prime market for drug dealers looking to push product, as more people turn to substances to weather that storm, Corbally said. 

“For somebody in the process of dealing substances this is a perfect scenario because people are having all of these social responses,” Corbally said. “This is the perfect way to get somebody hooked. And I’m fearful that a number of people started using or increased their use as a way to cope.” 

Corbally cites efforts within the Burlington community to encourage safety measures, like Narcan, a drug used to reverse the effects of an overdose. 

“We are quite lucky that we have done such a good job in our community with our partnerships in getting Narcan out the door so that people had that accessibility,” she said. “That is a life-saving option.” 

To Corbally, the next logical chain of events will be to continue seeing a rise in overdoses and drug use, she said. 

“I think—and I hope I’m wrong—I think we’re going to continue to see an uptick as we come out of this pandemic and systems go back to as normal as possible,” Corbally said. 

Because of compounding social issues like homelessness, job losses and people’s mental health amid sustained stress related to the pandemic, it’s possible more people will turn to substances, she said. 

“My concern is you can talk about overdose numbers and opioids, but the further conversation is how many people are drinking? That is still the number one abused substance,” Corbally said. “And how many people are finding themselves drinking as a way to cope and not seeking help and not talking about.” 

Part of that further conversation, Corbally said, has to be about the connection between mental health and addiction. 

“I think you’re kind of on the tip of an iceberg when you talk about addiction as a whole and mental health,” she said. “I think there’s a big story here, and it’s not just once piece.” 

On top of increasing numbers locally in Burlington and more broadly across the state, University of Vermont Medical Center Dr. Daniel Wolfson, who works in the emergency department, said he’s seen a significant drop in the number of people signing up for the medical center’s medication-assisted treatment program. 

“Before the pandemic we've had about 15 patients a month, coming in, asking to get enrolled into our medication-assisted treatment program and literally the day that pandemic became big news that flow of 15 people a month dried up to zero,” Wolfson said. “We have only enrolled one person into our MAT program since the pandemic has started.”

Wolfson said he’s especially concerned because he thinks that means that people are not getting treatment and support. 

“I don't think it's that there are less people that need help, I think folks have just been reluctant to come into the emergency department,” Wolfson said. “And so our concern is that there's probably a lot of people out there we could help, but they're not coming in to see us.” 

Because of that, Wolfson said he wanted to emphasize that the emergency room is open for people and they are taking every precaution to keep people safe. Part of those precautions includes separating patients who display Covid-19 symptoms from those that don’t, and increased use of protective equipment by staff. 

Outside of the medical center, the Howard Center’s Safe Recovery Program has continued to function in person with precautions in place to keep staff and clients safe, said program coordination Grace Keller. 

“While social distancing is essential to preventing the spread of Covid-19, it creates an inherent vulnerability to overdose in that two scenarios that dramatically increase one’s risk of overdose are using alone and relapse,” Keller said. 

Howard Center is working to prepare staff to talk to clients about safety protocols they can use to prevent both the spread of Covid-19 and overdosing, she said. 

The program is still offering all the same services it was before including therapy, needle exchanges and more. 

“Our staff instantly knew that we had to plan with a dual focus because not only are our clients statistically more likely to contract and have complications from Covid but social distancing would inherently increase their already significant risk of overdose,” Keller said. “Since the beginning of the pandemic, to our knowledge, we have not had clients test positive for Covid-19. However, we have lost clients to fatal overdose which has been devastating.”

Some services have shifted to telehealth, but Keller said they are still seeing a steady flow of clients, but the rise in nonfatal overdoses is still alarming. 

“Really, we're all desperate to help people, keep them alive, keep them healthy, and not lose ground in terms of overdose,” she said. “And it's very upsetting to hear that we know that our rates are going up.” 

About two years ago, the city was able to cut its overdose rates in half, Keller said, which makes her optimistic that the community could work to bring this number back down too. 

“In 2018, our county was a model in the nation for reduction of overdose deaths during the fentanyl epidemic,” she said. “I am hopeful that by working together and focusing on evidence-based practices such as Narcan and medication-assisted treatment, we can reduce fatal and nonfatal overdoses again.” 

In his daily media briefing, Mayor Miro Weinberger said Wednesday he’s seeing what everyone else is seeing in terms of a “substantial” increase in overdoses. 

“I’m concerned about that,” Weinberger said. “It’s [the increase] been that way pretty much throughout the quarantine, stay home period. I’m concerned about it. I don’t fully understand what’s going on yet.” 

Weinberger said the city will be having its first community status, or CommStat meeting next week where they’ll be working to understand more why this uptick is happening. 

Aidan Quigley contributed reporting

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