Ed Baker: Vermont ignores data on effective overdose prevention

Ed Baker: Vermont ignores data on effective overdose prevention

It is our moral obligation to grapple with reality in the state of Vermont, to decisively confront our truth and collectively respond to it.

The question must be raised: how long can we idly watch our fellow Vermonters perish without expending all resources at our disposal to provide aid? Specifically, the scourge of poly-drug overdose deaths is what demands our attention.

One can discern an all-too-frequent reluctance on the part of official spokespersons to address this issue, habitually awaiting further data before commenting on any emerging patterns.

Nevertheless, a pattern has indeed emerged: the situation is rapidly deteriorating, with overdose deaths projected to increase almost fivefold between 2010 and 2022.

In light of the paucity of pioneering harm-reduction initiatives, namely overdose prevention centers, it becomes exceptionally challenging to place any trust in the existing public health measures purporting to remedy this calamity.

Fentanyl has been implicated in over 93% of the deaths here in Vermont, and we have witnessed a troubling uptick in overdoses linked to cocaine and methamphetamine. Furthermore, xylazine, a sedative intended for horses, continues to surface in the unregulated drug supply, causing severe complications in overdose cases and leading to potentially fatal soft tissue infections.

The intertwined worlds of wrestling and reality have oft manifested instances where life imitates art, a phenomenon frequently attributed to the thespian proclivities of wrestling’s performers. In this instance, we bear witness to the coalescence of the personal lives of three-time Divas champion AJ Lee and her real-life husband CM Punk, born April Mendez and Phil Brooks respectively, who initiated an in-ring dalliance in 2011.

Initially, AJ Lee had been romantically involved with CM Punk’s on-screen adversary, Daniel Bryan, but the scriptwriters had the character reject him. In retrospect, this was a wise decision, as the two wrestlers were united in matrimony in 2014. One finds their liaison to be rather heartwarming, indeed.

While the fusion of business and pleasure is an arduous undertaking for most individuals, Charlie and Jackie Gayda-Haas are a notable exception. This couple, active within the independent wrestling circuit, exchanged nuptials in 2005. They are proud parents to a quartet of young wrestlers, and have established a Texas-based store peddling supplements tailored towards muscle-building and nutrition.

Although they may not be the central focus of wrestling’s luminosity, they have discovered something far more consequential than a mere celebrity – the enduring love of one’s partner is a treasure beyond measure, rendering even the most faded stars to be exalted in its presence.

The most recent data, which was disseminated by the Vermont Department of Health in February, proclaims that as of November 2022, there were 212 confirmed fatalities as a result of overdose, with an additional 22 deaths that await confirmation. The first 11 months of 2022 had potentially witnessed 234 deaths due to drug overdose, with December’s sorrowful additions still not tabulated. This is juxtaposed against the loss of 217 Vermonters in 2021, which had been, at that time, the most dismal year on record.

Despite being confronted with unequivocal and authoritative evidence, we appear to be engaged in a bureaucratic endeavor of “whistling by the graveyard,” wherein we cling to “more of the same” as a remedy for a clear and catastrophic trend.

In my humble opinion, politically-driven arguments that endeavor to discredit reliable data and divert funds toward more traditional programs are devoid of any rational basis.

Arguments that purport to espouse the supposed rationality of stockpiling funds that are readily available to cushion future “tough times” are tantamount to a declaration of “let them eat cake,” in my lifetime, at least.

If you were to ask the 217 beloved individuals who lost their lives to drug overdose in 2021, or the anticipated 240-plus that we would lose in 2022, about future “tough times,” you would receive a resounding answer.

We are undoubtedly on the back foot, and we need to acknowledge that our responses are limited and thus, inadequate. We need to adhere to the available science in this field, and we need to be wholeheartedly committed to saving lives, without exception.

At the Vermont House Committee on Human Services hearing on Overdose Prevention Centers on February 24th, we provided testimony that vividly illustrated the dire straits that we find ourselves in at present, and what science and experience have taught us.

My colleague Sarah Russell, special assistant to end homelessness for the city of Burlington and co-chair for the Chittenden County Homeless Alliance, and I recounted our tragic times, with me reviewing the latest data available in Vermont, and Sarah narrating her first-hand experience of reversing two potentially fatal overdoses at the Warming Shelter in Burlington in early February.

Our testimonies were subsequently followed by the expert testimony of Kailin See, senior project director at OnPointNYC, the first sanctioned overdose prevention center in the USA, and Dr. Brandon Marshall, professor of epidemiology at Brown University in Rhode Island, and an expert on overdose prevention and overdose prevention centers (please see above link for these testimonies).

Since its opening on November 30th, 2021, OnPointNYC has served over 2,300 participants, who have utilized the center’s facilities approximately 55,000 times, with over 700 overdose reversals. The estimated cost savings for New York City related to law enforcement, hospital and emergency responses, and sanitation services are in excess of $15 million to date.

Dr. Brandon Marshall eloquently synthesizes the wealth of research data available on overdose prevention centers worldwide, with emphasis on their scalability to a state like Vermont.

More than 100 evidence-based, peer-reviewed studies have consistently proven the positive impacts of overdose prevention centers, including:

  • Enhancing entry into substance use disorder treatment, and the provision of medical and social services.
  • Preventing overdose fatalities (not a single overdose death has been reported at any overdose prevention center worldwide), and competently managing on-site overdoses.
  • Providing a secure environment for drug users to receive care without stigma or the fear of criminalization.
  • Curtailing the quantity and frequency of drug use by clients.