One morning in May, a 25-year-old Barre woman woke up in her apartment to find her infant son no longer breathing beside her. She called emergency responders, but they were unable to revive her 7-month-old boy, identified in police reports as C.J.

An autopsy found that the baby died of “acute mixed drug intoxication,” according to his death certificate. A state medical examiner identified the culprits as fentanyl, para-fluorofentanyl and xylazine.

The medical examiner also found a green glassine bag lodged in C.J.’s upper airway. The object resembled the street packaging for heroin, police said, and looked like the glassine bags they saw lying around the child’s home.

His parents, Brianna and Christopher Wicker, pleaded not guilty in October to state felony charges of manslaughter and child cruelty. The Washington County State’s Attorney’s Office has charged the couple with inadequately supervising their son, resulting in the infant’s access to regulated drugs, as well as willful neglect that resulted in his death. 

They’re facing maximum penalties of 25 years in prison if convicted on both charges. 

Following a public records request, VTDigger learned that state records going back to 2008 show C.J. is the first minor to have died in Vermont in part from xylazine, an animal sedative that’s been increasingly found in illicit opioids. Xylazine is not approved for human use.

Xylazine has also become a growing factor in fatal opioid overdoses of Vermonters in recent years. The state Department of Health first became aware of xylazine’s role in such deaths in the fall of 2021, after which the department’s data analysts began looking for the drug’s presence in previous overdose deaths.  

From January to July this year, according to a recent health department report, xylazine was involved in 38 of 126 opioid overdose deaths among Vermonters, or 30% of the total. The rate has more than doubled from the same period last year when the drug figured in 15 of 119 opioid deaths, or 13%, the department told VTDigger.

A total of 29 people died in Vermont from xylazine-laced opioids last year. There were only five such deaths in 2020 and six in 2019. 

Illicit xylazine use in the United States, as a whole, has risen since 2020, according to figures from the Drug Enforcement Administration. In New England, drug analysts are tracking its rising prevalence in states such as Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Maine.

Xylazine has become a sought-after dilutant, particularly for the powerful synthetic opioid fentanyl, because it prolongs users’ highs, according to research. Vermont data analysis has shown that fentanyl is present in nearly all deaths involving xylazine.

Public health officials say the rise in xylazine-related deaths has emphasized the fact that people can’t know for sure what substances are in illicit drugs. And the animal sedative has thrown a wrench into ongoing overdose prevention efforts.

“Xylazine has certainly complicated overdose prevention because there is no test strip or current antidote for it,” said Nicole Rau Mitiguy, substance misuse prevention manager at the Vermont Department of Health. “For these reasons, we continue to urge people to not use (drugs) alone and to call 911 as soon as someone suspects they are witnessing an overdose.”

Because xylazine is not an opioid, experts say opioid antidotes such as naloxone may not be as effective in reversing opioid overdoses when the animal tranquilizer is present.

Studies show some people exposed to xylazine are not aware it’s in their drug supply, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse. Fentanyl test strips that are distributed in Vermont communities do not detect xylazine.

Xylazine is used on many animal species to calm them for diagnostic and surgical procedures, to relieve pain, or to act as a local anesthetic. In humans, repeated use of the drug can cause skin ulcers and abscesses. It can also slow breathing, heart rate and blood pressure to dangerously low levels. 

Taking xylazine with opioids and other depressants, such as alcohol or benzodiazepines, increases the risk of a life-threatening overdose, according to information from the national institute.

Until experts learn more about xylazine — such as its potential toxicity at various levels and how to readily test for the drug — it’s important to educate the public about its presence and health risks, said Stacey Sigmon, director of the Center on Rural Addiction at the University of Vermont.

“These efforts are particularly important in rural communities where people may have less regular interaction with health care providers and be less likely to seek medical care following an overdose due to transportation barriers, stigma, and other factors,” the Center said in a recent newsletter.

Meanwhile, the 126 fatal opioid overdoses of Vermonters from January to July surpass the 119 overdose deaths for the same period last year — when the state had a record-breaking 217 overdose deaths for the entire year. Last year’s death tally has climbed from the 210 cases originally reported.

Fentanyl, which has dominated opioid overdose deaths since 2016, figured in 117 of the deaths during the first seven months of this year.

Is the state health department worried that this year could bring worse news? Officials said they’re continuing with mitigation efforts while monitoring the numbers.

“We are careful to not infer a trend because the data can change significantly on a month-to-month basis,” Rau Mitiguy said.

July, for instance, is traditionally a month when the department records more overdoses taking place.

Correction: This story has been clarified to state C.J. is the first minor to have died in Vermont in part from xylazine.

VTDigger's southwestern Vermont reporter.