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Fentanyl fight crosses party lines amid overdose death spike as Peter Welch, Rick Scott propose training, data improvements

Mar 29, 2023

BENNINGTON — As Vermont faces an increase in opioid overdose deaths — nearly all of them connected to fentanyl – U.S. Sen. Peter Welch is co-sponsoring a bill aimed at improving law enforcement’s understanding of the synthetic painkiller and how it is being misused.

Welch, D-Vt., on Wednesday announced a bipartisan effort with U.S. Sen. Rick Scott, R-Fla., in proposing the Overcoming Prevalent Inadequacies in Overdose Information Data Sets (OPIOIDS) Act, which they called “comprehensive new legislation to help law enforcement better identify, understand, and address opioid overdoses.”

Last week, the state Department of Health reported that 237 persons had died of opioid overdoses in Vermont in 2022. That’s 20 more deaths than in 2021 – a 10 percent increase – and the third straight year the state has broken its own record for drug overdose deaths.

Of those 237 deaths, 221 involved fentanyl in some combination with other drugs, according to the report.

The data also shows 68 deaths involving xylazine — an animal tranquilizer known as “tranq dope” — and 31 involving gabapentin, a prescription nerve pain blocker. Both substances are used to extend the effects of fentanyl; more troublingly, neither can be countered by Narcan, the drug used to reverse opioid overdoses.

According to the Health Department, Windham County recorded the highest rate per 100,000 residents — 61.6 opioid deaths per 100,000 residents. Bennington County had the fifth-highest rate among Vermont’s 14 counties, at 47.9 deaths per 100,000 residents. The statewide rate is 33.6 deaths per 100,000 residents.

“We’ve lost far too many Vermonters to overdose,” Welch said in a news release. “Ending this crisis will take hard work from all corners of our communities — from medical professionals and law enforcement to families, friends, and neighbors. But we cannot end overdoses without understanding their cause. That’s why I am proud to join Sen. Scott to introduce this bipartisan legislation. The OPIOIDS Act will help law enforcement gather essential data to make informed decisions on prevention, treatment, and recovery and keep Vermonters safe.”

According to the announcement, the bill would:

• Allow the U.S. Attorney General’s office to issue grants to states and communities to improve opioid overdose surveillance data.

• Direct the U.S. Department of Justice to award grants to local law enforcement agencies in communities with high rates of overdoses. The money would be used to train officers to better identify overdoses and trace criminals through the dark web, and upgrade essential systems for drug tracing and forensic laboratories.

• Allow existing federal COPS grants to pay for training and resources for containment devices to prevent secondary exposure for first responders.

• Direct the National Drug Control Policy to collaborate with the National Forensic Laboratory Information System and DOJ to create national standards for the submission of data into the system. The Drug Enforcement Agency would be directed to develop uniform reporting standards for purity, formulation and weight, to allow for better comparison across jurisdictions.

• Requires the DEA to inform Congress how much funding it needs to effectively carry out the Fentanyl Signature Profiling Program.

Scott and Welch have polar opposite political views on many issues. But the danger posed by fentanyl misuse brought the two lawmakers together.

“Illicit fentanyl continues to endanger communities and families all across the country and it must be stopped,” Scott said in the announcement. “We have lost too many mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, and friends, and I will not allow the horrific consequences of inadequate policies in Washington, or the heartbreak of families hurt by this terrible drug, to be ignored.”

In Vermont, Nicole Rau Mitiguy, the Substance Misuse Prevention Manager for the state Department of Health, says the department would welcome any enhancement to data collection such as what Welch and Scott propose. “We take a data-driven approach to all public health concerns, particularly with our work around overdose prevention and relapse,” she said.

The bill, Rau Mitiguy said, reflects work the state is already doing to connect data from different sources to help health officials and policymakers understand how and where people overdose, and how they can helped.

For example, the Health Department already produces a “social autopsy report,” which analyzes data to look for trends. In 2020, the most recent year available, 69 percent of overdoses occurred at home, 52 percent were using alone, 63 percent had at least one interaction with emergency medical services since 2015, and 85 percent had interacted with Vermont State Police since 1988.

The Welch-Scott bill could help other states duplicate such efforts and take a regional approach to addressing substance use disorder and overdoses, Rau Mitiguy said.

“The number of overdoses continues to be heartbreaking,” she said. “Those numbers are Vermonters – folks who are cared about and loved. We are constantly wanting to reduce that number – really, drive that number to zero.”

The bill could also help Vermont work with its neighbors as it approaches substance use disorder and overdose deaths from a regional approach.

“That information sharing is so critical and can help us look for and identify things within our own situation,” Rau Mitiguy said.

On the local level, additional access to data would help non-government organizations like Turning Point in Bennington better understand trends, as well as individual cases.

“For example I feel that EMS has incredibly relevant data for Turning Point,” said Margae Diamond, the organization’s executive director. “But EMS can’t just push data to us. The client has to sign a release, then we have to figure out how to secure that information — and who’s going to be accessing it.”

Turning Point would also like to know more about what happens to people when they are referred to treatment – especially in cases that end with a fatal overdose

“We’d all like a way to share information so we can track the continuum of care for a person and understand where things failed,” she said. “We really need to understand where the points of failure were on an individual basis. We all have a sense of where those points are but they vary person to person.”

Clients come in various systems on their road to recovery, she said – hospitals, inpatient and outpatient treatment, law enforcement, corrections and restorative justice programs, just to name a few.

“We want to support the person holistically. That means agencies need to start working together holistically.”

Story Written by Greg Sukiennik, Bennington Banner

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