Health Care

Opioid deaths dip for second month this year, but no one’s calling it a trend

For the second month in a row, the number of reported opioid overdose deaths in Vermont has fallen — but state health officials said it’s far too early to talk about a trend.

Eight Vermonters fatally overdosed in March, down from 12 in February and 23 in January, according to state health department data released on Wednesday.

The total of 43 opioid deaths for the first quarter of the year is also lower than the 51 deaths recorded for the same period in 2021 — a year in which a record-setting 215 Vermonters fatally overdosed.

Because the opioid death toll had been climbing since the coronavirus pandemic started in March 2020, state health officials are encouraged by the recent numbers, even as they urged caution.

“Because there are many factors that can impact what is happening in our communities, and the decrease is only over two months, we need to be cautious about identifying a trend,” Cynthia Seivwright, director of the Vermont Department of Health’s division of alcohol and drug abuse programs, told VTDigger.

One thing that didn’t change from previous months: the destruction attributed to fentanyl. All eight overdose deaths recorded in March involved the powerful synthetic opioid, which has dominated fatal overdoses among Vermonters since 2016.

Public health experts and law enforcement officers have said fentanyl is not only relatively inexpensive, but it’s also widely available. Those factors have led illicit drug manufacturers to mix fentanyl with other substances — with or without the knowledge of users.

In comparison, heroin was involved in one death in March; prescription painkillers, none. These types of opioids dominated the landscape between the 1990s and the early 2010s, according to researchers.

Most opioid deaths involve multiple substances, according to the health department. Some 83% of the cases last year involved two or more substances.

In the first three months of this year, Chittenden County logged nine resident overdose deaths, the most of any county. It’s followed by Franklin County, with six, then Orleans and Windham counties, with five each.

When the fatal overdoses are assessed based on the county population, Orleans is at the top with a rate of 18.5 deaths per 100,000 residents. Next to it is Franklin County with a rate of 12.1 deaths per 100,000.

Seivwright said the health department is continuing with its overdose mitigation efforts, such as distributing Narcan, a brand of opioid overdose antidote, through emergency medical responders and addiction recovery centers.

Local partners also distribute “harm reduction packs” that include fentanyl test strips, which can show users if the drug they have on hand contains fentanyl.

The monthly opioid fatality numbers could change once pending death certificates are finalized.

The total overdose deaths last year, for instance, has been upped to 215 from the original count of 210.

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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: [email protected]

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