After String Of Overdoses, Vermont Officials Urge Heroin Users To Beware Of Potent Batch

Aug 16, 2016

State officials say a potent batch of heroin is responsible for a spate of overdoses in central Vermont over the past few days. The Department of Health is urging addicts to take precautions, and one doctor says the episode highlights the need for more intensive treatment services.

Dr. Mark Depman is the director of the emergency department at the Central Vermont Medical Center in Berlin. Two computer screens sit on his office desk. And on Monday afternoon, he opened up a spreadsheet tracking the number of heroin overdoses his department has seen over the years.

“In 2014, 12. 2015, 11, and so far in 2016, we’ve had 31, we’re only halfway through the year,” Depman says.

This year’s numbers ballooned dramatically in recent days, when a batch of especially potent heroin began circulating through central Vermont.

“I suspect, and I don’t have confirmation, that it’s mixed with fentanyl, and that’s really been what’s happened all throughout this country,” says Commissioner of Health Harry Chen.

Fentanyl-related deaths have surged in Vermont over the past five years, and now play a role in 40 percent of all overdose deaths, according to state data. Fentanyl is 50 times more powerful than heroin, and is used by suppliers to strengthen an otherwise low-grade product.

“So you take a dose and it’s mixed with fentanyl, and you get obviously 50 times more opioid effect, and that could be deadly,” Chen says.

Fentanyl is 50 times more powerful than heroin. Fentanyl-related deaths have surged in Vermont over the past five years, and now play a role in 40 percent of all overdose deaths, according to state data.

Chen says his department is working with needle-exchange programs and treatment providers to inform users about the arrival of batch, distributed in packaging stamped with the brand name “Game of Thrones.”

According to The Barre-Montpelier Times Argus, Barre City police say one person died early Monday morning from an overdose. Emergency service providers were able to revive the remainder of the victims with the overdose-reversal drug Naloxone.

Depman says Naloxone offers the pharmacological intervention needed to revive a patient physically.

“However what’s really important is for that person to get really immediate psycho-social intervention,” he says.

Depman says federally funded substance abuse screeners at Central Vermont Medical Center have worked with some of the addicts who came in in recent days.

“And some of those patients … they felt motivated and accepted some opportunities for treatment,” Depman says.

"When they want the treatment is when they're the most motivated, and that's when you want to connect them." — Dr. Mark Depman, emergency department director at the Central Vermont Medical Center

But Depman says screeners specialized in substance abuse issues aren’t available 24/7. And he says that means some addicts are not getting the intervention at the moment they’re likely to be most receptive to it.

“We have significant gaps right now,” Depman says.

Depman says there are other shortcomings in the system. Addicts in some cases have to wait for many days for the medically-assisted detox many need to stop using opiates.

“When they want the treatment is when they’re the most motivated, and that’s when you want to connect them,” Depman says.

Depman says he’s eager to work with state officials to fill the gaps, and to ensure his hospital can secure funding for the drug and alcohol counselors when the federal grant expires in two years. Chen says his department is exploring whether the state could begin giving kits to opiate addicts that would allow them to test heroin to see if it contains fentanyl.