Nearly 200 people died opioid-related deaths in Chittenden County between 2010 and 2019. They were sisters, brothers, mothers, fathers, aunts, uncles, grandparents and friends.
Around the state, opioid-related deaths declined about 15% between 2018 and 2019, according to preliminary data from the Vermont Department of Health.
While the state acknowledges its strategies are making a difference, the opioid epidemic remains a significant challenge, said Gov. Phil Scott, in a press release.
Indeed, one year doesn’t signify a trend. The Vermont Department of Health would like to see at least three consecutive years of declining opioid-related fatalities before calling it a trend, said Cynthia Seivwright, director of the Vermont Department of Health Division of Alcohol and Drug Abuse Programs.
“We were pleased to see that the work we were doing was making an impact,” Seivwright said. “It tells us that the investments that we’re making and all the work that people are doing is having an impact and we need to keep doing it, but we have to keep doing more.”
There are resources, statewide, that are helping Vermonters recover from opioid misuse. In March, the state launched VTHelplink as an online site connecting people with substance use treatment and support services. The website allows users anonymity, helping decrease barriers to access.
Seivwright said part of Vermont’s earliest efforts at fighting the opioid crisis included approaching misuse with a more restorative than punitive model.
“We went towards the treatment model, not the law enforcement model of, ‘We can arrest our way out of this problem,’” Seivwright said.
The state also implemented a hub and spoke system for Medication Assisted Treatment. The state has nine regional “hubs,” which offer daily support for people with complex addiction, and some 75 “spokes” consisting of doctors, nurses and counselors, which offer ongoing treatment that is integrated with general healthcare services.
Where to go
Locals can turn to the Howard Center for help. In 2013, the Howard Center expanded its opiate treatment program to the Chittenden Clinic in South Burlington. The clinic acts as a “hub” in the state’s medication assisted treatment system. It also offers counseling and support services.
In Fiscal Year 2019 the clinic served some 1,200-1,300 people per month. This year, it has served about 960 people per month.
Medication Assisted Treatment Programs use drugs like Methadone and Buprenorphine to alleviate cravings and eliminate withdrawal, said Dana Poverman, Director of Medication Assisted Treatment Programs for Howard Center.
The clinic looks at both physical signs and psychological/social signs before beginning a person on medication assisted treatment.
The length of time an individual may be on medication assisted treatment varies from person to person.
“For many people it’s a long-term situation, maybe the rest of their life,” Poverman said. “We try to do this on an individualized basis and look at between the physician, and the client and their counselor.”
Accessibility has been a key part of helping Vermonters. The Chittenden Clinic was followed by other “hubs” including two centers in the Northeast Kingdom, and several more in southern parts of the state opened after 2014.
Later, the state worked on training physicians to treat patients in office settings as the “spokes” of the hub-and-spoke system.
Other state efforts to combat opioid misuse have included the creation of a statewide network for naloxone distribution, safe drug disposal and syringe service programs.
Seeing people through recovery is wonderful work, Poverman said, adding people recover to varying degrees.
“You hear these stories of peoples’ resiliency and recovery, and it’s just heartwarming,” she said. “Even some of the times when people are not necessarily doing well but you see them, and they smile ... it’s just heartwarming.”
The work continues though. While treatment programs and centers are available, there are still barriers to care. For some, transportation to and from clinics can be challenging. For others, finding childcare while going to a clinic can be preventive.
There’s still work to be done, reaching people and ensuring they don’t have barriers to treatment, Seivwright said. While a decline in opioid-related fatalities indicates state measures may be working, those measures must continue and expand, Seivwright said.
“We can’t get too out in front of this and say, ‘Wow, we’re doing it right, we’re making a difference,’” she said. “When it’s zero, then we’re going to feel really good.”