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Amid Burlington's Opiate Crisis, Officials Hope Better Data Lead To Better Results

Taylor Dobbs
From left: Vermont Health Commissioner Harry Chen, Burlington Mayor Miro Weinberger, Chittenden County State's Attorney Sarah George, UVM Medical Center Chief Medical Office Stephen Leffler and Burlington Police Chief Brandon del Pozo.

Officials in Burlington announced new measures Thursday that are part of the city’s efforts to gather data that will help inform their work to fight opiate addiction and the problems it brings to the community.It's been more than three years since then-Governor Peter Shumlin devoted his entire inaugural address to the problem of opiates in Vermont, and government agencies along with community service providers have been working non-stop since then to address the opiate problem.

But as Burlington Mayor Miro Weinberger said Thursday, it hasn't been enough.

“The official release last week of the 2016 deaths, showing approximately 38 percent increase in opioid deaths statewide, is a stark reminder of the context that we're meeting in today,” Weinberger said, citing recent data from the Vermont Department of Health.

Burlington hired an opiate policy coordinator last year, but Thursday's announcement had more to do with the "how" of stopping the opiate crisis than the "who" or the "what."

Weinberger announced a list of new efforts designed to gather better data about the opiate crisis — and to get that data sooner, so that officials can respond to trends as they emerge.

One example of that is the expansion of the city's CommunitySTAT program to include the police departments in Winooski and South Burlington.

Burlington Police Chief Brandon del Pozo said that while police jurisdictions end at the town line, opiates and the problems they cause do not, so neither should the data being used to solve those problems.

“If we look across our three jurisdictions, some people really jump off the map as not only requiring a lot of police resources to handle, but as being extremely vulnerable to a fatal overdose, just based on their escalating behavior,” del Pozo said.

Burlington's data-driven efforts aren't just focused on what happens once people are addicted.

Doctor Stephen Leffler is the chief medical officer at the University of Vermont Medical Center, and he acknowledged that doctors' prescribing practices for opiate painkillers are part of the problem.

“We're committed to driving down the amount of opiates that we're prescribing, and we'll be transparent with data to show that we're having effective results,” Leffler said.

Officials also announced new efforts to gather data that shows when the systems in place haven't shown effective results.

Vermont's health commissioner, Harry Chen, announced that the state plans to begin publishing county-level data on opiate-related deaths every month instead of every year.

Weinberger called those deaths a "critical failure" of the systems in place in the community, but he said the data can also help officials understand what works and what doesn't in closer to real time.

“We can learn lessons from a focus on these areas and rapidly adjust tactics as a result of that,” Weinberger said.

That's essentially the goal of all of all these efforts: to create streams of data that can provide data quickly and accurately so officials know what's going right in the fight against opiates — and what's still going wrong.

Taylor was VPR's digital reporter from 2013 until 2017. After growing up in Vermont, he graduated with at BA in Journalism from Northeastern University in 2013.
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