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More than 200 Vermonters died from opioid overdoses in 2021

A pile of hypodermic needles.
Matt Rourke
A record number of Vermonters died from opioid overdoses in 2021. Fatal overdoses have been rising since the start of the pandemic.

The state of Vermont set a grim record last year: 210 residents died from opioid overdoses. It's the first time in the state’s history that number has topped 200, according to health department data.

Public health officials say the pandemic has exacerbated the opioid crisis. Nationally, more than 100,000 people died from drug overdoses between April 2020 and April 2021.

Vermont hit a record number of fatal overdoses in 2020 as well: 158 deaths. That number increased by 33% in 2021.

More from VPR News: AG Donovan says new bankruptcy plan for opioid maker will help Vermonters

Health department data show fentanyl was a significant factor in fatal overdoses last year. The powerful synthetic opioid was involved in 93% of the opioid-related deaths last year. Cocaine was involved in 48% of fatal opioid overdoses and methamphetamine was involved in 10% — an increase from previous years, according to the health department. Heroin only was involved in 10% of fatal overdoses, down from 25% the previous year.

“It seems to indicate that people who are thinking that they're purchasing heroin actually may be purchasing fentanyl,” Deputy Health Commissioner Kelly Dougherty said.

The health department distributes “harm reduction packs” that contain overdose reversing medication and fentanyl test strips, which detect the presence — but not the concentration — of fentanyl, Dougherty said.

If people are using opioids, Dougherty said they shouldn't use alone, and should make sure that they have naloxone, an overdose reversing drug, nearby.

"We have seen that in some cases with fentanyl, it requires more than one dose of the naloxone to reverse it," she said. "But if naloxone is not available, because it is a respiratory kind of event, you can administer rescue breaths to someone experiencing an overdose."

Rutland County had the highest fatality rates in the state, followed closely by Windham and Bennington counties. Chittenden County had the lowest overdose rate.

“The way we've been doing things and the way systems have been doing things is not obviously working,” said Tracie Hauck, executive director of Turning Point Center of Rutland.

Hauck said her organization is doing more outreach, especially to the motels in the area that are housing people experiencing homelessness, to offer them information about treatment services and distribute overdose reversing medication and fentanyl test strips. Local police also refer people to the organization who experience non-fatal overdoses.

More from NPR: Drug overdose deaths in the U.S. have topped 100,000 for the first time

The state should also consider opening overdose prevention sites where people can use drugs under medical supervision, Hauck said.

“If people get to a point where they don't want to die from using drugs, and they want to do it safely, then let's help them do it safely — because they’re somebody's family member,” Hauck said. “They're not going to reach out for help if you're constantly shaming them.”

Vermont is slated to receive tens of millions of dollars from several recent settlements with opioid manufacturers and distributors. Those funds will go towards opioid treatment and prevention programs.

Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message or get in touch with reporter Liam Elder-Connors @lseconnors

Corrected: April 12, 2022 at 9:59 AM EDT
A previous version of this story incorrectly stated the number of fatal opioid overdoses that involved fentanyl. It is 93%, not 94%.
Liam is Vermont Public’s public safety reporter, focusing on law enforcement, courts and the prison system.
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