Health Care

Fatal overdoses increase across Vermont amid continued pandemic

Emergency sign and hospital
The emergency department at Central Vermont Medical Center. Photo by Mike Dougherty/VTDigger

At least 47 Vermonters have fatally overdosed since January 2020, reversing previous data that showed fatal overdoses going down in the state

Department of Health data shows that from January through April, 47 people died from drug overdoses across the state. During the same stretch of time last year 38 people died. In February of this year, the number of fatal overdoses was down compared to 2019, but by March, they were on the rise again.

Particularly concerning was a cluster of six fatal overdoses in Rutland County in April, said Cindy Seivwright, the health department’s director of alcohol and drug programs. 

In the months leading up to April, Rutland County saw zero deaths in January, one death in February and March, and then six in April, she said. 

“That’s concerning, and it could be so many things,” Seivwright said. “It could be there was a bad batch, a batch that was laced with fentanyl, and people didn’t know it. There are so many factors.” 

Conditions during the coronavirus crisis, including limited in-person interactions and increased isolation, have also concerned officials.

“People using alone during Covid is one of the things that we’re very concerned about,” Seivwright said. “We’re getting Narcan out but if you’re alone, the Narcan is not going to help. You can’t use it on yourself.” 

Each month, the health department releases data focused on two months prior as it can take up to six weeks for toxicology reports to come back, according to department spokesperson Ben Truman. 

Generally, Chittenden County has made up the bulk of Vermont’s fatal overdoses, according to state data. But in 2020, the number of fatal overdoses in the state’s most populous county remained steady at three for January through March, then decreased in April to two.

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Meanwhile, Gov. Phil Scott has directed the Department of Public Safety and the health department to change their policies for reviewing fatal overdose data after questioning from VTDigger revealed a disparity in datasets kept by the two agencies. 

While the health department’s data showed that 47 people had died of overdoses through April, data from the Department of Public Safety showed up until June only 32 people had died. 

Upon questioning about the data, Scott’s spokesperson, Rebecca Kelley, confirmed more than 24 hours later that the health department’s data was the more accurate figure to use. 

“Based on what we’ve learned, that is more all encompassing of overdose deaths as it captures those that may not touch law enforcement, and it relies on death certificates where an overdose has been confirmed,” Kelley stated. “While the DPS data will get reconciled with VDH data, the 32 count had not gone through that process yet.”

Nonfatal overdoses are also on the rise across the state and not just in Chittenden County, but the rate that is being used to determine that number is being reviewed to see if the number is as accurate as it can be, Seivwright said. 

“The number of overdoses we’ve seen were pretty much steady in January, February. And then, in March, in April there was a pretty significant increase,” she said. In March 2019, the rate was 15.9 per 10,000 emergency room visits; this year, the rate was 29.5.

In April, the rate was 36.3 nonfatal overdoses per 10,000 emergency room visits — more than double the rate of 14.7 in April 2019. 

But, Seivwright said, the overall number of emergency room visits has gone down, which may account for that increase. 

In Burlington, nonfatal overdoses have increased by 76% since February, according to Jackie Corbally, the city’s high-risk behavior manager.

In Rutland, and across the state, people have had to adapt to a changing landscape of addiction recovery that’s been battered by complications related to the spread of Covid-19. 

Evergreen Substance Abuse Services in Rutland, like many facilities, had to move to virtual meetings or phone calls, which don’t have the same impact as face to face interactions, Clay Gilbert, the facility’s director, said. 

Additionally, Gilbert noted, the lack of in-person meetings and a stoppage of urine tests reduced the opportunities for accountability.

Gilbert said he knew some of the six people who died in April. One, he said, had won $35,000 off a scratch lottery ticket.

“Two days later, he overdosed,” Gilbert said. “He had been stable for two, two and a half years, so that was unfortunate.”

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One of the other six, he said, had just gotten their stimulus check.

“The folks that are struggling with alcohol and drugs, certainly, you know, don’t have very good money management skills,” Gilbert said. “So that’s certainly a piece of it, and support — as far as, you know, AA, NA, live counseling, all that stuff — certainly was somewhat nonexistent.”

Tracie Hauck, the executive director of Turning Point Center Rutland, said she also had heard of several people overdosing after receiving their stimulus checks. But the drivers behind the rising numbers may be isolation and social distancing as Covid-19 continues to affect Vermonters. 

“The opposite of addiction is connection. And when you can’t get out and be around the support people that you normally have, it makes it very hard to maintain sobriety,” she said. “And, you know, also there were stimulus checks that I know were a factor in a couple of overdoses that have happened.”

As a person in long-term recovery, Hauck said she can understand the toll being isolated has on someone, especially someone that has just started on their long path of recovery.

“I mean, I’m a person in long-term recovery and if you’re inside your head too long by yourself, you end up doing things that you wouldn’t do if you were around, or had the ability to be around, your recovery support centers,” Hauck said. “I think that it’s dangerous to be isolated when you’re early in recovery.”

In the last three weeks, Hauck and her center have started going to local motels around Rutland City to pass out harm reduction kits and to make people aware that some services are being offered in person, she said.

Despite always remaining optimistic, Hauck said she thinks the situation is going to get worse before it gets better.

“It’s one thing to go through a traumatic, life-changing event. There’s a beginning and an end,” Hauck said. “Well, we haven’t had an end yet to Covid. And when are we going to have an end? I think human nature is to think that there’s going to be an end and you need that answer and know when it’s done. But nobody has that right now.”

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Sawyer Loftus

About Sawyer

Sawyer Loftus will be a senior this fall at the University of Vermont, where he is pursuing a degree in history with a minor in public communication. He has been involved with the Vermont Cynic, UVM’s independent student newspaper, since his freshman year. This past year, he was news and sports editor, and will become editor-in-chief in August. Sawyer grew up in Colchester and previously interned at Vermont Public Radio, where he worked on "All Things Considered." He also worked at the Burlington Free Press, where he covered a variety of topics with words and multimedia.
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