Strips that check for the presence of the animal tranquilizer xylazine in street drugs could soon become more available in Vermont. The state Department of Health is in the process of ordering the test strips for public distribution, as xylazine-related drug deaths continue to rise.
Xylazine test strips will be distributed to communities in ways similar to that of fentanyl test strips, said health department spokesperson Ben Truman. These channels, he said, include outreach workers, syringe exchange services and “harm reduction packs,” which also contain the opioid antidote naloxone and rescue breathing masks.
As of Thursday, the health department didn’t have a start date yet for the xylazine strip distribution. Truman said the agency is working on a purchasing contract “to have them available as soon as possible.”
This comes as more Vermonters are fatally overdosing on opioids — particularly fentanyl — mixed with xylazine.
As of May, according to the latest state figures, 95 Vermonters had died from an accidental opioid overdose this year. Xylazine was involved in 31 of the deaths, or a third of the total.
In 2019, there were six xylazine-related opioid deaths among Vermonters. The following year, there were five.
Xylazine, also known as “tranq,” has become a popular adulterant for fentanyl because it prolongs users’ high, research shows. But because xylazine is not an opioid, it blunts the efficacy of the opioid overdose reversal drug naloxone, popularly known as Narcan.
The HIV/HCV Resource Center, a New Hampshire nonprofit that encompasses Vermont, started handing out xylazine test strips in Windsor and Orange counties this March through its drug overdose prevention program.
The center, which receives funding support from the Vermont’s Department of Health, has been buying xylazine test strips from manufacturers for $2 apiece. Once the health department begins distributing them to local partners, the center will also receive supplies, said Executive Director Laura Byrne.
“I think they might be able to buy them in bulk and get a good deal on them,” she said, “so we’re looking forward to having VDH purchase them on our behalf.”
The Howard Center in Burlington has also been giving out the strips for several months now, under its Safe Recovery program, said spokesperson Denise Vignoe. She said the center has added xylazine strips to its existing harm reduction tools, such as fentanyl test strips and naloxone.
Byrne, of the HIV/HCV Resource Center, said some users knowingly take substances that have tested positive for xylazine. But there are others, she said, who decline to use them and go back to their source.
Health experts say users of xylazine-laced drugs develop severe wounds, including necrosis, the rotting of human tissue.
“We take them back to the dealer to get them replaced,” Byrne quoted a client as saying of drugs adulterated with xylazine. “At least they can make more of an informed choice and put pressure on the dealers to find some way not to use xylazine,” she said.