Health Care

94 Vermonters died from opioid overdose in first half of this year

During the first half of this year, 94 Vermonters died of an accidental opioid overdose, reflecting the sustained increase in such deaths since the Covid-19 pandemic started.

Eighty-eight of the deaths between January and June involved fentanyl, according to a recent report by the Vermont Department of Health. 

Fentanyl, which has dominated fatal opioid use in the state since 2016, is a powerful drug that’s relatively inexpensive to produce and widely available. Authorities said these factors have led illicit drug manufacturers to mix fentanyl with other substances — with or without the knowledge of users.

Addiction recovery professionals point to fentanyl as a major factor in the overdose deaths in Essex County — which posted the state’s highest opioid death rate, at 32.5 deaths per 100,000 residents, during the first half of 2022. It was followed by a rate of 28.4 in Windham County.

Two people died of fatal overdoses in Essex County within this period, a significant number because Essex is Vermont’s least populated county, with fewer than 6,000 residents.

“People are really struggling with it, and we need more support,” said Lila Bennett, director of the Journey to Recovery Community Center in Orleans County, which serves a portion of Essex County.

Essex is only one of two Vermont counties that doesn’t have its own recovery center. Orange County is another, according to the Vermont Recovery Network.

Bennett said that because of Essex County’s remote location in the northeast corner of the state, residents don’t have quick access to social services such as hospitals, emergency responders and recovery support groups.

Right now, her recovery center in Newport is doing outreach work in Essex County, along with Kingdom Recovery Center in neighboring Caledonia County. The centers are between 25 and 35 miles away from Brighton, for example, one of the county’s larger towns.

On top of these factors, Bennett said, her center has received reports of increased drug activity in Essex County during the past six months.

Vermont State Police confirmed the center’s observations. Its narcotics investigation unit “has indeed seen an increase in drug activity in Essex County this year,” state police spokesperson Adam Silverman said.

The rise has primarily been with fentanyl and the stimulant crack cocaine, Silverman said, mirroring information from the Newport recovery center.

The state’s opioid overdose death toll for the first six months of the year is four fewer than in the same period last year. But it’s also 22 more than that of 2020, when fatal overdoses began rising during the pandemic, which upended people’s lives with fear, anxiety, depression, stress, isolation and loneliness.  

State health officials are encouraged that this year’s numbers are lower on average than those of 2021, though they’re cautious about drawing conclusions from the preliminary data.

“We are careful to not infer a trend because the data can change significantly on a month-to-month basis,” said Cynthia Seivwright, director of the health department’s substance use programs division. “The department is continuing our work to address overdoses statewide.”

The opioid overdose death count can change as outstanding death certificates are processed. For instance, the health department initially reported a record-setting 210 fatal opioid overdoses last year. As of this month’s report, that count has jumped to 217.

Nationwide, Vermont ranked No. 9 in opioid overdose deaths last year, according to a VTDigger analysis of data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The state posted a rate of 39.1 deaths per 100,000 people.

West Virginia, which had the highest rate of overdose fatalities, recorded 76.8 deaths per 100,000 people.

Correction: An earlier version of this story used the wrong wording for the opioid death rate for Essex County.

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Tiffany Tan

About Tiffany

Tiffany Tan is VTDigger's Southern Vermont reporter. Before joining VTDigger, she covered cops and courts for the Bennington Banner from 2018 to 2021. Prior to that, Tiffany worked for the Rapid City Journal in South Dakota and spent more than 10 years working for newspapers and television stations in Manila, Singapore and Beijing.

Email: ttan@vtdigger.org

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