In 2013, Vermont began tracking the number of opioid overdose related fatalities in the state on a county-by-county basis. Officials in Chittenden County, Vermont’s most populous, announced Thursday that there was a significant drop in overdose deaths last year.
According to the tracking data from the Vermont Department of Health, opioid overdose deaths in Chittenden County, which includes the cities of Burlington, Winooski and South Burlington, increased between 2013 and 2017, peaking in 2017 at 35. To try to stem the upward spiral, two and a half years ago county officials created a broad-ranging partnership called CommunityStat that includes health and treatment experts, law enforcement, and other advocates to address the crisis.
Their strategies include expansion and increased access to addiction treatment medications and elimination of stigma.
Thursday afternoon Burlington Mayor Miro Weinberger announced their efforts have resulted in some positive results. “While we continue to lose neighbors, co-workers and children to this epidemic at a heartbreaking and unacceptable rate, and while our work is far from done, today we announce with great hope that the Vermont Department of Health has determined that the Chittenden County opioid related overdose deaths dropped by 50-percent in 2018. You know again we want to be really clear that everyone of us in this room believes that our job is far from over.”
The Howard Center is one of the primary addiction treatment hubs in Vermont. CEO Bob Bick explains they have eliminated waiting lists for treatment, pioneered the use of technology via iPhones to help rural patients and that the Chittenden Clinic was the first program to receive national accreditation as a medical specialty service for substance use disorders. “We are saving lives. But we’re not saving everybody. We’re helping families but we’re not helping all of the families. But all of us, every organization, are steadfast in our commitment to continue to do what we need to do in order to ensure that there is immediate access to treatment and to support those who continue to struggle with this horrible disease.”
The Burlington city council recently approved a resolution urging that CommunityStat be expanded and include more community members. The group then invited Scott Pavek to join the effort. “In two weeks I will celebrate six years in recovery from opioid use disorder. Today we are recognizing the fact that more Vermonters will someday be able to say the same thing. I’m heartened to see the policies and tools which would have benefitted me while in active addiction are saving lives today. But it is also important to recognize that we are not out of the woods. We are celebrating reduced death not the absence of it.”
Law enforcement agencies are a critical part of the effort. Burlington Police Chief Brandon Del Pozo says he has gotten pushback from outside the region for their approach to the addiction crisis. “I don’t consider myself a law enforcement officer. I consider myself a police officer. What police officers do is protect and rescue Americans in danger and that’s our first duty. And when I realized that I realized I realized it puts me in the exact same arena as all of us. And so one of the things that I think that we’ve embraced here that I’m very very proud of is this idea that there’s so many ways to recovery and recovery’s so important but let’s continuously focus on our North Star, which is the number of men and women who are dying.”
Chittenden County State’s Attorney Sarah George says work must continue to remove barriers to treatment and services. “I’m really proud of the work that we’re doing in Chittenden County by exposing less people to the criminal justice system and connecting them with the services that they truly need and sending a message to every person who’s struggling with addiction that we see them as patients rather than criminals.”
The Vermont Department of Health data shows that statewide opioid overdose fatalities in 2018 increased.