Burlington leaders discuss new resolution concerning the ongoing opioid crisis
Burlington City Council recently passed a resolution naming the opioid crisis the city's top public health and safety priority. This comes after a consistent increase in opioid overdoses in Vermont since the COVID-19 pandemic.
"What has happened since then is absolutely heartbreaking. I never imagined we would go from a place then when we had cut overdose deaths in half to now see them triple," Burlington Mayor Miro Weinberger said on Monday's Vermont Edition. "I want to emphasize it's not something that is happening in Burlington alone."
City Council President Karen Paul said this resolution is an opportunity for the city to try other approaches.
Paul said the resolution included some clear action items to help move forward, including two community forums that will be happening in November.
"I think one of the challenges that we face, you know, not just as a city but just as human beings is that we'll oftentimes say, 'Oh, I have an idea. But you know, I don't know, maybe it doesn't work.' And before you've even given the idea, you've sort of already concluded that it won't work. We want people to bring those ideas. And again, to be bold," Paul said.
The resolution also includes a new overdose response team, a six-month pilot program through the fire department.
Fire Chief Michael LaChance said the fire department has always responded to overdoses — about 70% of calls are medical-related. But overdose calls are becoming more prevalent, and the issue is becoming harder to respond to.
"The drugs are changing. ... We're just seeing a lot more unresponsive patients, overdose patients, data shows that those numbers are dramatically increasing year over year since 2020. It is just definitely a large call volume for our folks. And they're just feeling like they're not able to affect the outcome that they would like to affect. They're just not able to get these folks out of their cycle of addiction. And that's, that's stressful for our folks, as people who really want to help and want to find solutions," LaChance said.
LaChance said that when the team isn't responding to calls, they will also provide community outreach.
We are doing everything we can at the local level to continue to work. ... We need state and federal government also to be working in a coordinated manner with new strategies if we're going to do something.Mayor Miro Weinberger
Mayor Weinberger said the overdose crisis is something that also needs to be approached at the state and federal level.
"We are doing everything we can at the local level to continue to work. ... We need state and federal government also to be working in a coordinated manner with new strategies if we're going to do something," Weinberger said.
Overall, Weinberger said it's important to keep conversations open regarding housing, resource access and the criminal justice system when discussing this crisis.
"We have spent a lot of time on this call, I think, talking about all the ways in which our social services or treatment, our homelessness systems need to be improved to address what we're seeing. But I do think we need to also have on the table whether there needs to be further changes to the way in which we do enforce some of these laws," Weinberger said. "From my perspective, the the issue is so bad right now, everything needs to be on the table."
LaChance said that providing resources and meeting people where they are will be key moving forward on the issue.
"Where I see the the disconnect is moving on to that, taking that next step for these folks, and really allowing them the humanity of, of treatment options. And, you know, some of these folks do leave against medical direction and again, perpetuates the cycle. But I think meeting them where they are is a key aspect of getting them to that next step," LaChance said.
Weinberger recently announced he would not be running for re-election, and told VTDigger he may be considering a state-level position. He told Vermont Edition that while he hasn't decided his next steps yet, he is thinking about how state-level positions can play a role in discussions regarding homelessness, the drug crisis and the climate emergency.
"I do find that we have very serious problems as a state," Weinberger said. "I am exploring whether there is way that I can have an impact on those roles. You know, I don't know if it's going to be me doing that work or not. But these issues are not going to fix themselves. And it's certainly something I'm looking into."
Callers on today's Vermont Edition show raised questions regarding access to resources like suboxone or safe injection sites, and concerns regarding housing and the criminal justice system, and how those impact the opioid crisis. For a more in-depth conversation, we recommend listening to the audio recording provided above.
Broadcast at noon Monday, Oct. 16, 2023; rebroadcast at 7 p.m.