Newly released data from the Vermont Department of Health indicates that state and community efforts continue to slow the upward spiral of accidental opioid deaths. Preliminary data for 2018 shows that 110 Vermonters died from opioid overdoses, up two percent from 2017. However, the rate of increase in opioid-related deaths has dropped significantly over the past several years.
“We are slowing the rate of deaths from opioids,” said Health Commissioner Mark Levine, MD. “This means more Vermonters are alive today to seek treatment and succeed in their recovery.”
The rate of accidental opioid-related deaths has gone from a 30 percent increase between 2015 and 2016, to 12 percent from 2016 to 2017, and is now down to two percent.
“While this trend is encouraging, every death is a personal and tragic reminder of how far we have yet to go,” said Dr. Levine, who attributed the progress to Vermont’s systems of care and community efforts to reach people and get them into treatment.
“The data is bearing out that our multi-faceted approach to addressing opioid use disorder is making a difference,” said Levine. “We know that treating substance use disorders can reduce family conflict, feelings of depression, anxiety and anger – all factors that can threaten a person’s long-term recovery, and negatively impact their families, loved ones and our communities.”
Levine cited the impact of the state’s Hub and Spoke treatment system, noting that more than 8,000 Vermonters currently receive medication-assisted treatment in state supported facilities, and 4,000 people received recovery center services in 2018, compared to 2,000 in 2014.
Despite the positive trends, health officials are concerned about the ongoing challenge of fentanyl. It can be 50 times more powerful than heroin, which was a factor in 75 percent of opioid-related overdoses in 2018, up from 69 percent in 2017. The number of fatalities involving fentanyl has nearly tripled since 2015.
“It is important that we continue to emphasize harm reduction so we can save as many lives as possible,” said Dr. Levine. “There is no way to know what you are getting in street drugs. Anyone who uses should just assume that what they are taking has fentanyl in it and take steps to stay safe: Don’t use alone. Only use one drug at a time. Don’t mix drugs and alcohol. Carry naloxone in case of accidental overdose. And when you are ready, treatment is available, and recovery is possible.”
The number of opioid-related deaths involving a prescription opioid has remained relatively consistent since 2015. Given that the number of overall deaths increased during this time, the proportion of deaths involving a prescription opioid has significantly decreased, from 41 percent in 2015 to 28 percent in 2018.
Fatalities involving heroin increased in 2018. Heroin was found in 55 percent of all opioid-related accidental and undetermined fatalities, up from 39 percent in 2017.
Opioid-related fatalities involving cocaine continued to increase. Cocaine was present in more than 40 percent of accidental and undetermined opioid-related deaths, up from 33 percent in 2017.
“The opioid epidemic is a complex challenge that takes a terrible toll on people caught in its grasp,” said Dr. Levine. “We have all come to truly understand the devastation many Vermonters experience, and we will not let up on our intervention, prevention, treatment, recovery and public safety efforts.
“Find the Opioid-related Fatalities data brief at healthvermont.gov/response/alcohol-drugs.