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The home for VPR's coverage of health and health industry issues affecting the state of Vermont.

How Vermonters Are Navigating Opioid Recovery Amid The Pandemic

The exterior of the closed St. John the Apostle Church, in Johnson, Vt.
Amy Kolb Noyes
VPR File
Jenna's House will soon be a community center created by Jenna's Promise to hold meetings and events such as sober weddings or funerals if people cannot afford to do so otherwise.

The number of opioid overdoses in Vermont continues to climb, and the isolation brought by the winter and the pandemic makes things difficult for those in recovery, and those trying to use safely. This hour, we talk about what it's like to be balancing the opioid crisis and the pandemic for those in recovery, and those who are helping people get to recovery.

Our guests are:

  • Julea Larsen, supervisor of opioid response team at Turning Point Center of Bennington
  • Ashlee Loyer, mother based in Burlington who has been in recovery for four years
  • Greg Tatro, president and founder of Jenna's Promise, a recovery community based in Johnson

Broadcast live on Monday, Dec. 14, 2020 at noon. Rebroadcast at 7 p.m.

Recovery and treatment resources

The following conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Q&A with Julea Larsen, the supervisor of the opioid recovery program at Turning Point Center of Bennington

Are people still accessing treatment and recovery resources through the pandemic?

We have a program that we run through the emergency room at Southwestern Vermont Medical Center, and we're still seeing people coming through the emergency with substance use disorder, who aren't receiving help because they're isolated in hotels, lack transportation -- a multitude of different reasons.

The need is still there.

More from VPR: 'We're Stretched': Mental Health Providers On The Pandemic's Toll

I think what has happened is, we've created ... this system, where when people are in hotels, their basic needs are being met. And so, while we've provided this great resource and we've been able to help people end homelessness… people aren't having to seek out inpatient treatment beds as soon as they would if they didn't have a place to go or they didn't have somebody to come to, sometimes for the last resort.

But right now, we're not really seen as the last resort, I guess.

"Opioid overdose is 100% preventable. And we just want to let people know that the service is here and available." - Julea Larsen, Turning Point Center of Bennington

What resources are available to people right now, to help prevent overdoses?

We distribute Narcan bags that are provided by the Alcohol and Drug Abuse Program.

There are harm reduction kits, and they provide Narcan [and] a bunch of different information, and we add other resources and local information. We hand them out at hotels in different areas around Bennington and to other organizations.

Those are life-saving tools for an opiate overdose.

But we would also like to make that face-to-face connection [with people where we can], because we're people in recovery and we want to show people that there's a way out, that it's possible.

Opioid overdose is 100% preventable. And we just want to let people know that the service is here and available.

State officials are advising Vermonters to never use alone, but during this period of required isolation brought on by the pandemic, that can be difficult.

Right now, the state is telling people not to gather with other households. So how can people use as safely as possible?

How we do that is we provide fentanyl test strips, we provide Narcan and we tell people: Do not use alone.

Maintain social distancing, maintain good hygiene, wear a mask, but make sure that people are in a safe place and that somebody is there with them [when they are using].

You know, [in the event of an overdose] Narcan will work if somebody is there to help us.

But if there's nobody there and there's nobody to call 9-1-1, there's no options.

So people can still use safely. We don't want 10 people gathering together, but just have one safe person that's not using come to you in a safe place where you are using and then use the safety measures that we're [putting in place] for COVID-19.

"The definition of recovery is connection." - Julea Larsen, Turning Point Center of Bennington

Do you think people are using safely during the pandemic?

The definition of recovery is connection. So if you disconnect people from each other and you isolate them wherever they're living, whether that's their own apartment or a hotel with their grandparents, if you disconnect them from their social circle, their family circle, their work circle, [people will struggle].

People that have [achieved] long-term sobriety are struggling this year.

And I think that using harm reduction methods is safer than using nothing at all.

We know how to protect ourselves from COVID. We can do that safely and effectively, and Narcan can always be accessed through the Turning Point Center

Are there approaches that are going well that you could carry forward, post-pandemic?

There are. I think that we've built good relationships with our community partners, so we have a safe network of MAT providers.

If somebody shows up at our emergency department in withdrawal, they can access MAT services and start their recovery from that emergency room visit and go forward from there. And then we can follow up with them and call them for the next 10 days and get them engaged in recovery support, help expedite them, facilitate their treatment, help advocate for them, help communicate with family members about different ways that they can interact and help and not enable.

So I think there are a lot of things that are working really well.

We’re starting a new program ... due to start in January, where we'll actually be paged to overdoses [in cases] where people are refusing to go to the hospital after being given Narcan.

More from VPR: 'No Shame In Seeking Help': Scott Urges Vermonters To Pursue Mental Health, Addiction Treatment

So if they receive a dose of Narcan and then they don't use the ambulance to go to the hospital, a recovery coach that's been specially trained will go out and try and talk them into the process, and find out: what are their fears, why they don’t want to receive medical treatment, where are they in their recovery or are they ready for recovery, is there harm reduction that we can do?

[The goal is to find out] overall, what we can do to keep people safe until they decide that they want recovery in their life, so we don't have as many opiate fatalities.

Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message or tweet us @vermontedition.

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Jane Lindholm is the host, executive producer and creator of But Why: A Podcast For Curious Kids. In addition to her work on our international kids show, she produces special projects for Vermont Public. Until March 2021, she was host and editor of the award-winning Vermont Public program Vermont Edition.
Emily was a Vermont Edition producer at Vermont Public Radio until September 2021.
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