High number of overdoses continues to plague Burlington

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

Burlington officials have called the city’s recent opioid overdose figures “alarming,” as numbers that spiked dramatically in 2022 remain elevated.

According to data from Burlington Police Department, 251 overdoses were reported in 2022. The department’s figures include any report of an overdose to which police responded, including fatal and non-fatal incidents.

During an update to the Police Commission on Tuesday night, Acting Chief Jon Murad highlighted the numbers the department has seen so far this year: 60 overdoses from Jan. 1 through March 15.

Murad told the commission the trend is “tremendously alarming.” In an interview on Friday, Mayor Miro Weinberger said he was “very concerned.”

“The nature of the opioid crisis has changed dramatically in this community with fentanyl in Vermont and we need to dramatically alter our response to it,” Weinberger said. “And I'm doing everything I can think of to do that, but we need a lot more.”

During his update to the police commission, Murad also cited monthly totals, which show that overdoses jumped suddenly last summer. The 31 overdoses recorded in June were double the total for May, and monthly totals have remained elevated ever since.

According to a map of overdoses in 2022 shared by the city, most were reported around the downtown area. 

The trend in Burlington is reflected statewide. According to a March 13 report from the Vermont Department of Health, 237 fatal overdoses were reported in the state during 2022, including 48 in Chittenden County.

The rate of overdose deaths per 100,000 residents in Chittenden County was 29.3 in 2022, according to the health department report. That is lower than many other counties, particularly in southern Vermont, where Rutland and Windham counties had rates of 56.7 and 61.6, respectively.

People who work in local agencies acknowledged the recent spike in overdoses, and pointed to drugs like fentanyl and xylazine that have entered the supply stream of opioids and made them increasingly dangerous.

The state health department reported that most of Vermont’s opioid deaths last year — 221 of 237 — involved fentanyl. Xylazine, which is not an opioid, was detected in 68. A major concern with that drug is its resistance to the overdose-reversing drug naloxone, commonly known as Narcan.

Kim Mercer, marketing and development director at the Turning Point Center of Chittenden County in Burlington, pointed to state data showing fentanyl’s increasing prevalence as the biggest explanation for the spike in incidents in the city.

“More than theories,” she said, there’s “evidence that cheap and abundant fentanyl is causing the overdoses.”

Dan Hall, director of outpatient services for the Howard Center, agreed that fentanyl is contributing to overdoses and deaths. But he said another factor was “psychosocial stressors going on in the community” following the Covid-19 pandemic.

The Howard Center runs its Safe Recovery program in downtown Burlington, which Hall described as a low-barrier, anonymous walk-in center where people with substance use disorders can exchange syringes and pick up Narcan, along with fentanyl and xylazine test strips. 

Visitors can also obtain treatment services, including medication-assisted treatments with Suboxone, as well as services with social workers and nurses.

Hall said the office hands out Narcan to every person who walks through the door, and Mercer said the same is happening at the Turning Point Center. The federal Food and Drug Administration recently announced that Narcan will soon be available over-the-counter.

Turning Point focuses more on recovery services. It also employs staff members who are paged by the emergency department at University of Vermont Medical Center when patients arrive with a substance use emergency. In 80% of those cases, the patient follows up with Turning Point, Mercer said.

“Bringing people back after an overdose is just the first step,” she said. “And a lot of times people are ready when they're at that point, that crisis point. They're ready to get some help.”

Another new approach downtown is being run by the nonprofit Vermonters for Criminal Justice Reform, which started a program that rewards people, often with money, simply for showing up at a treatment program, no drug test required. 

Weinberger touted the program and said the city government sent federal Covid-19 relief money to help pay for it.

“They're pioneering this innovative new strategy that combines medically assisted treatment with this contingency management and it seems like it's having a positive impact,” Weinberger said.

Weinberger and the City Council hope to add to the existing substance use resources downtown, particularly with overdose prevention sites, which are places where people can use drugs that they’ve already obtained, but in a supervised setting where trained staff can intervene in the event of an overdose.

In March, the council passed a resolution calling for overdose prevention sites in the city, and Weinberger said he supports the idea. But the city would need state approval for the sites.

Weinberger sits on the state Opioid Settlement Advisory Committee, which was formed by the Legislature to help determine how to spend the money from a legal settlement from the makers of prescription opioids. He said he voted in favor of spending $1 million of the settlement money for overdose prevention sites, but the idea was voted down. 

Committee members who supported funding the overdose prevention sites got a commitment from the rest of the committee to discuss the idea further, Weinberger said. “It's possible that this could change after future testimonies come in,” he said.

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Patrick Crowley

About Patrick

Patrick Crowley is VTDigger's Burlington Reporter. Previously, he has worked for the Brattleboro Reformer and wrote as a freelance reporter in Ventura County, California. Patrick is a musician and volunteers as a firefighter and advanced EMT.


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