Earlier this month, Chittenden County government and public health leaders celebrated report that said the number of opioid-related overdose deaths in the county dropped by 50 percent in 2018. Statewide, overdose deaths rose two percent last year. Burlington Mayor Miro Weinberger spoke with VPR about the county’s efforts to combat the opioid epidemic.
Weinberger says he's hopeful that the decrease in opioid-related fatalities, from 35 in 2017 to 17 last year, is part of an ongoing trend. He traces the county's progress to Brandon del Pozo becoming Burlington’s Police Chief in 2015. Early in his tenure, Del Pozo reviewed the city’s response efforts to the opioid epidemic and introduced a number of new interventions, Weinberger said.
“The majority of (the interventions) focus in one way or another on expanding access to, on speeding access to, and on destigmatizing these life-saving addiction medicines, buprenorphine and methadone,” he said.
As an example, Weinberger points to Burlington emergency room doctors prescribing medications, such as buprenorphine, to patients treated for overdoses.
“Now, when you go to the emergency room for an overdose, the doctors are trained to offer people the first dose of buprenorphine — one of these life-saving addiction medicines — before the person leaves the emergency room,” says Weinberger.
Previously, he said, overdose patients were treated with naloxone, a medication that reverses opioid overdoses, and discharged with no ongoing care plan or information about how to access additional treatment.
Weinberger acknowledges there is still much work to be done.
“I think still all of us are left with this deep sense that 17 deaths represents 17 too many,” Weinberger told VPR.
Officials will continue to double down on treatment strategies that have been shown to work, he said, and new interventions are in the works.
Weinberger said he is open to considering safe injection sites as a way to combat the opioid epidemic. However, he says his focus is on treatment options that, unlike safe injection sites, are supported by the federal government.
“We think the focus right now for saving lives today should be on expanding access to medically-assisted treatment — expanding access to buprenorphine and methadone,” he said.
Weinberger says both he and del Pozo have been frustrated with the degree to which the conversation around opioid treatment has centered around safe injection sites.