Several national experts in the fight against the opioid epidemic praised the city’s progress at Burlington City Hall on Tuesday.
Gil Kerlikowske, who served as the United States’ “Drug Czar” under President Obama and later served as head of U.S. Customs and Border Patrol, said heightened attention to the issue contributed to a 50 percent deline in opioid-related fatalities in Chittenden County.
“We couldn’t have been more heartened by what we saw today and the work being done,” said Kerlikowske, who also led the US Customs and Border Patrol said. “To see this tonight and to see all of you here expressing interest – realize that you really are making the difference.”
Kerlikowske, Dr. Josh Sharfstein of Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, and Fred Ryan, former police chief in Arlington, Massachusetts, Fred Ryan learned the region’s aproach to the problem from local leaders.
Ryan has been nationally recognized for his work in changing how his department handles opioids and co-wrote a book on policing the opioid crisis. He emphasized the importance of a supportive community.
“Success can’t happen without everyone in this room and everyone in the city creating an environment where long-term recovery can happen in the community without stigma,” Ryan said. “Often times, detox occurs in a healthcare setting and a private locale, but long-term recovery occurs in the community.”
Sharfstein highlighted the importance of listening to people directly affected by the opioid crisis. He cited the Howard Center’s needle exchange program that also offers addiction treatment.
“Take what they say, and try things that are different, innovate, and check to see whether it’s working,” Dr. Sharfstein said. “People were going, for years, to the syringe exchange saying ‘I wish I could get treatment right now’ and there was nothing to offer them. Because of the way Burlington responded to them, there’s now treatment there and so many people are doing well.”
Last month, state health officials said there were 17 opioid overdose deaths in Chittenden County in 2018 — the fewest since at least 2013, when the state began publishing county-by-county fatality figures. In 2017, there were 34 deaths in Chittenden County.
Burlington Mayor Miro Weinberger credited the decline to the region’s embrace of medication-assisted treatment, and expressed hope that the county’s success can be used as a blueprint for cities across the country.