ST. ALBANS – The state’s leading minds on the opioid epidemic and substance abuse in Vermont want people to know there’s hope for stemming the epidemic and there’s hope for recovery.

That was the message Jolinda LaClair, the Vermont Dept. of Health’s Drug Prevention Policy, wanted to lead with when the Vermont Community Development Association’s spring conference resumed Tuesday afternoon at St. Albans City Hall.

“There was always hope,” she said.

“HOPE” is the word adorning the cover of the Opioid Coordination Council’s recommended strategies for 2019, a comprehensive report on the opioid epidemic in Vermont with an accompanying list of strategies for stymieing that epidemic.

LaClair presented an abridged take on OCC’s report, starting with the statistic that 8,000 Vermonters sought treatment for opioid addiction in 2018.

While that number was important for understanding the crisis and measuring the state’s response, LaClair warned that it wasn’t conclusive. According to LaClair, the Dept. of Health estimated that another 10,000 to 20,000 Vermonters went without treatment for opioid addiction last year.

According to LaClair, there were 110 opioid-related deaths in 2018, a minor increase from the 108 recorded deaths in 2017.

“Some people could say we weren’t doing as well as we could do – we’d like to see the number of opioid-related deaths at zero,” LaClair said. “Realistically, with fentanyl in particular, that is not that likely.

“What is likely is that we continue to build the system of resources.”

She underlined other issues staggering the state’s response to the epidemic, like the geographic disparities that favored Vermont’s more developed corners over its rural swathes when it came to prevention and treatment.

One of those disparities specifically targeted by OCC’s 2019 report was afterschool programming, part of the so-called “third space” between home and school. Engaging students in that period could help with prevention, LaClair and OCC’s report suggested.

Kids “need engagement,” LaClair said.

Offhand, LaClair estimated that only half of the communities in Vermont offered afterschool programming. 

Another of OCC’s recommendations was the expansion of syringe services, which provide sterilized needles and syringes for users while also offering a safe place to dispose of those needles.

While admitting syringe exchanges could be controversial, LaClair said that consistent, easy access to syringe services leads more users to treatment.

According to the OCC’s report, only seven of Vermont’s counties had a fixed syringe service program, and access to those programs was typically limited by only being available a few hours a week. 

There are two safe drop-offs in Franklin County, a representative from the Vermont Dept. of Health said Tuesday afternoon. One of those drop-offs was at the Northern Tier Center for Health (NOTCH) clinic in Enosburgh and another could be found on the first floor of the State Office Building in St. Albans.

OCC’s report also cited information that said safe needle exchanges reduced disease transmission from unclean needles.

Other recommendations from OCC included the expansion of the OCC’s scope to all substances and the embedding of abuse specialists into police forces, that latter sentiment discussed later during a roundtable of Franklin County professionals that included St. Albans Police Department (SAPD) Lieutenant Jason Weatherby.

A full list of recommendations from OCC is publically available in their 2019 report, found on the Dept. of Health’s website at https://bit.ly/2HaOtLi.

LaClair added, however, that while much of the OCC’s recommendations related to policy choices and politics, there was always room in the community for some kind of action.

“You can do so many things without the waving of the wand by the legislature,” LaClair said.

A roundtable of Franklin County organizers and professionals followed LaClair’s presentation.

Joining SAPD’s Weatherby were Crystal Lampman of Franklin County Caring Communities (FCCC), the Northwest Regional Planning Commission (NRPC)’s Catherine Dimitruk, and the Franklin Grand Isle Restorative Justice Center’s Nina Curtiss and Jody White.

FCCC’s Lampman walked through a shortlist of the organization’s efforts to reduce substance abuse in Franklin County, with much of the work tailored toward addressing alcohol – the most widely abused substance in Vermont.

Those programs included working with local companies to remove alcohol advertisements from their windows, as well as working with breweries and other alcohol producers that sponsor community events to make sure their logos aren’t the most prominent in those events’ banners.

Lampman later said that, as a CPR-teacher, she now teaches Narcan application as a part of her classes. Narcan, the brandname for naloxone, is a medication used to block the medical effects of opioid use, particularly during an overdose.

Free Narcan is now available at the Turning Point of Franklin County, the area’s BAART clinic and the Howard Center in Burlington, according to Northwestern Medical Center specialist Melinda White. “It is so readily available,” she said, encouraging those in attendance to pick up Narcan “just in case.”

Dimitruk said that the regional planning commissions played a role in helping improve the health of a community and help structure communities in order to improve outcomes for their most vulnerable groups.

“We really recognized that, while individual health impacts the community, community health really impacts the individual,” Dimitruk said.

The regional planning commissions, Dimitruk said, could also organize education programs and help businesses with accommodating those in recovery.

Weatherby said that SAPD’s response to substance abuse involved working closely with community organizers to best understand what’s happening in real time. 

This, Weatherby said, helped SAPD bridge the delay between the data reports generally compiled from previous years and trends as they’re actually occurring in the community.

Weatherby also spoke highly of SAPD’s embedded specialist from the Northwest Counseling & Support Services, who Weatherby dubbed “a godsend” for being able to work with some of the more sensitive situations – including substance abuse – SAPD might respond to.

Curtiss, the director of the Franklin Grand Isle Restorative Justice Center, shared an update from the Franklin Grand Isle Opioid Response Consortium, a grant-funded coalition of healthcare providers overseen by the restorative justice center.

According to Curtiss, the consortium had applied for another federal grant, looking to fund two of the consortium’s priorities: more recovery specialists and prevention programs in two Franklin County schools.

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