Opioid-related fatalities in Vermont decreased in 2019

Opioid-related fatalities in the state have decreased for the first time since 2014, the Vermont Department of Health announced last week.

Newly released preliminary data show a 15 percent decline in the number of deaths attributed to opioid misuse - down from 130 in 2018 to 111 in 2019.

In a news release, Health Commissioner Dr. Mark Levine said that the state's strategies to meet this public health challenge are making a difference, “but even a single death tied to opioid use is too many.”

Levine credits the state's multifaceted, all-agency approach to tackling the opioid crisis.

The state's efforts have included providing rapid access to medication-assisted treatment, patient education, and rules governing prescription monitoring. The state has created a statewide network for naloxone distribution, safe drug disposal, syringe service programs, a statewide network of recovery centers, and building strong community partnerships.

Levine said Vermont has worked to dig deep into providing full-service programming to help residents move from treatment to successful recovery. Key to those efforts has been Vermont's hub-and-spoke system of care that makes available medication-assisted treatment (MAT) services to people diagnosed with opioid-use disorder.

More than 9,000 Vermonters receive MAT in state-supported facilities, and treatment is available to anyone who wants it. The hub-and-spoke system has been adopted by other states as a care model.

Health officials stressed that although progress is significant, even in normal times the work is ongoing, and that there is “no defined finish line other than ensuring Vermonters get the treatment and recovery services when and where they are needed.”

In addition, Levine said the COVID-19 pandemic creates new challenges for people living with substance-use disorder, but emphasized there are still many ways to get help.

The Health Department recently launched, which provides free, confidential, and personalized information and referrals to substance-use prevention, treatment, and recovery services throughout the state.

VTHelplink features a call center of trained staff and clinicians and online resources, connecting Vermonters to information for themselves, for family and friends, or on behalf of clients.

Additional findings from the 2019 opioid-related fatalities (all data is preliminary):

• Fentanyl continues to be the primary driver of opioid-related deaths in Vermont. Although there were fewer deaths involving fentanyl in 2019 (95) compared to 2018 (100), fentanyl accounts for 86 percent of deaths in 2019, compared to 77 percent in 2018.

• The percentage of opioid-related fatalities involving cocaine continues to increase. Cocaine was present in 43 percent of opioid-related fatalities in 2019, up from 36 percent in 2018. The number of cocaine-involved deaths surpassed the number involving heroin for the first time since 2010.

• After increasing from 42 deaths in 2017 to 69 deaths in 2018, deaths involving heroin decreased by nearly half in 2019 (37 deaths).

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