Opioid overdoses rise in pandemic

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 6/22/2020 9:17:55 PM
Modified: 6/22/2020 9:17:50 PM

WEST LEBANON — Opioid overdoses in the Twin States have started to spike upward amid the COVID-19 pandemic and the stress and challenges that have come along with it.

Vermont saw the number of non-fatal overdoses nearly double in March of this year, compared with March of last year, according to data from the Vermont Department of Health.

The number of fatal overdoses also more than doubled, going up to nine and 17 for March and April of this year, from four and eight in March and April of 2019.

New Hampshire saw an increase of roughly 30% in drug overdose deaths in April and May compared to the same months last year, according to preliminary data released by the New Hampshire chief medical examiner on Monday. There were 42 deaths in April and 45 in May, up from 32 in April and 35 in May of 2019.

Those counts, which include both confirmed deaths and those pending toxicology, are also above the numbers for those months in 2018. 

While health officials are still digging through the data to identify trends, they are fairly certain the increases are a result of the impact of the pandemic and efforts to mitigate it, said Cynthia Seivwright, who directs the Vermont Alcohol and Drug Abuse Program at the state Department of Health. She pointed to fear, anxiety and depression tied to COVID-19 itself, but also to related job losses and financial challenges.

“Social isolation, we think, is a very big part of this,” she said.

She noted that the overdose reversal drug naloxone, also known by the trade name Narcan, is only effective if someone else is there to administer it. It can’t be used if someone is using drugs alone.

Seivwright said it appears that some of the deaths were right after the person received a stimulus check.

“Getting those checks is a trigger for people,” she said.

As in-person meetings gradually resume as the Twin States reopen, treatment providers and others in the recovery community are hopeful that they will be able to bring the overdose trends in line with where they were pre-pand emic when both New Hampshire and Vermont had begun to see annual decreases in overdose deaths.

“We know the things that are working,” said Seivwright. “We’re doing it in maybe a different way, but still reaching people. We all have to get creative during these times, don’t we?”

Most treatment providers and recovery centers have continued to provide services during the stay-at-home orders using Zoom, telephone and text messaging, but it took them a few weeks to make the switch effectively, Seivwright said. It’s possible that some people left treatment then, she said.

While online meetings have eliminated the barrier that transportation once created for people living in rural areas, it has created another by requiring that people have access to the devices and internet required to connect.

“Every day somebody stops by and says, ‘Are you open?’ ” said Mike Johnson, who directs the Turning Point Recovery Center in Springfield, Vt.

Johnson said he is preparing both to bring employees back and to hold one-on-one and small group sessions in person in the near future. For now, some groups are meeting outside and some are still online in order to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

“We’re trying to meet the demands as best we can,” he said.

Turning Point is a part of the Springfield Outreach Team that in normal times goes to see a person who has recently overdosed and declined to be transported to an emergency department, Johnson said. The team offers the person a harm reduction bag, which includes information about treatment and recovery resources as well as naloxone.

But during the pandemic, the team members have been unable to visit with people who’ve recently overdosed so they have to try and track them down by phone, Johnson said.

“Half the time the phone numbers don’t work,” he said.

Turning Point recovery coaches have continued to offer support to people in emergency departments at Mt. Ascutney Hospital and Health Center in Windsor and Springfield (Vt.) Hospital using telehealth.

“We are aware of an increase in overdose deaths in Windsor County during the pandemic,” said Mt. Ascutney CEO Joseph Perras. “We are working to coordinate the responses of first responders and medical providers to intervene as early as possible in patients with opioid use disorder.”

In addition to connecting patients with recovery coaches, Perras said emergency department providers can help patients who have recently overdosed to begin medication-assisted treatment. The hospital also serves as a free naloxone distribution site, he said.

Turning Point operates a 24-hour support line through which staff members aim to help people get through the urge to use. Other resources are available online through vthelplink.org.

“Those moments really don’t last that long,” Johnson said.

Even if someone has to call several times in one night, getting through a period of an intense craving can show people that “it’s possible to get through,” he said.

They can then build on that success to “make the big one work,” he said, alluding to a longer-term effort to abstain from drug use.

Johnson said he’s hopeful that resuming in-person one-on-one visits, especially with people who are early in their recovery, will make a difference.

“It’s always great to be with someone who understands what you’re feeling,” he said.

Nora Doyle-Burr can be reached at ndoyleburr@vnews.com or 603-727-3213.

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