Advocates and lawmakers are calling for high-level attention on steps to address the crisis of drug overdose deaths in Vermont, which they say has worsened during the COVID-19 pandemic.
These calls came the same day Gov. Phil Scott, R-Vermont, proclaimed Wednesday Recovery Day in the state, vowing to support people with substance use disorders in seeking treatment and brighter days ahead.
"Highlighting this day also sends a message to those who are struggling," Scott said in a video statement posted to his Twitter feed. "Recovery is possible."
Preliminary numbers from the Vermont Department of Health show through November, 134 Vermont residents died accidentally in 2020 from opioids. Most of those deaths involved fentanyl, according to the early data.
That figure, which still does not include December deaths, is up sharply from 2019. That year, according to a report from the Vermont Department of Health, was the first year in five years to have seen an encouraging decline in opioid deaths.
More on the opioid pandemic
Additional VDH data showed 2020 emergency room visits across the state for opioid overdoses was significantly higher than a three-year average in the early weeks of the pandemic — during a stay-at-home order and when people were most disconnected from support systems and jobs.
"Vermont isn't alone," noted Rep. Selene Colburn, P-Burlington. "We know that this is part of a national trend and that the pandemic has caused a mental health crisis across the country."
Brenda Siegel, an advocate for policies to save lives from overdoses, led a virtual gathering Wednesday with lawmakers and prosecutors discussing proposals aimed at helping bring down the overdose crisis.
Siegel, who previously ran for governor and lieutenant governor of Vermont, lost her nephew to an overdose.
"His death broke me," Siegel said. "It broke me because I had helped him fight for his life."
Siegel said harm reduction needs to be the focus of public policy efforts in order to make meaningful change.
State lawmakers are now working on a range of bills designed to help.
One would bar the use of warrants to pull someone seeking recovery from their in-patient treatment facility to face criminal charges. Its sponsor, Rep. Will Notte, D-Rutland, argues if the crime is low-level, that arrest can wait.
"There is certainly no good that comes from someone doing everything right and being yanked out of that situation to stand before a judge," Notte said Wednesday of the legislative proposal on which he is working.
Other proposals in the works include a pilot program to deliver medication-assisted treatment from mobile medical units, making test kits available to help people who use drugs know what substances are in their supply, expansions of access to treatment, and systems that would make naxolone — a substance used to reverse an overdose — more available.
While there is significant work and debate ahead for all the proposals, Attorney General T.J. Donovan praised the focus on health.
"We know that a healthy community is a safe community," said Donovan, a Democrat.
Siegel said she hopes for progress that could help slow the overdose crisis.
"Every life lost is another preventable death," the advocate told attendees of her virtual gathering.