Largest jump in Colorado overdose deaths in more than 20 years, data show

By: - July 15, 2021 1:49 pm

Oxycodone pain pills prescribed for a patient with chronic pain lie on display on March 23, 2016, in Norwich, Connecticut. (John Moore/Getty Images)

Fatal drug overdose deaths increased approximately 38% in Colorado from 2019 to 2020, according to preliminary federal data from the National Vital Statistics System.

That’s the largest year-over-year increase in Colorado overdose deaths since at least 2000, and is worse than the U.S. average. The nation as a whole experienced a 29% increase in overdose deaths, the new data show.

The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment — which recently updated its own online dashboard with 2020 overdose data — reported 1,477 deaths statewide in 2020. In 2019, 1,072 people died of an overdose in Colorado.

People who need help with a substance use or mental health disorder can contact Colorado Crisis Services at 1-844-493-8255 or texting “TALK” to 38255. Trained professionals are available for crisis support and referrals 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

Overdose deaths had also increased in the state between 2018 and 2019, but by a much smaller margin: around 10%, according to CDPHE data. In 2020, the likelihood of dying from a drug overdose in Colorado was highest for men (33 deaths per 100,000 people), Black people (36 deaths per 100,000 people), and American Indian or Alaska Native people (30 deaths per 100,000 people). People of color are more likely than white people to face barriers to substance use treatment.

Last year, 956 people died of an opioid overdose, according to the state data. This represented a 54% increase from 2019 in the number of deaths caused by opioids — a category that includes heroin, oxycodone, morphine and similar substances.

The category also includes fentanyl, an opioid that can be deadly in small amounts and is increasingly present in street drugs including counterfeit pills and cocaine. Colorado saw fentanyl-associated deaths more than double — from 222 deaths in 2019 to 540 deaths in 2020, according to data provided to Newsline by Kirk Bol, manager of CDPHE's Vital Statistics Program.

Harm reduction organizations in Colorado offer free resources for people with substance use disorders, such as naloxone, an opioid overdose reversal drug; testing strips to check illicit drugs for fentanyl; clean syringes; and referrals to addiction treatment.

Access Point Colorado offers free naloxone and fentanyl test strips at various locations in Denver, Pueblo, Fort Collins and Grand Junction.
• Harm Reduction Action Center, located at 112 E. 8th Ave. in Denver, offers free fentanyl test strips to people who inject drugs. Depending on supply, HRAC sometimes distributes test strips to the broader public. Call 303-572-7800 to learn about available resources.
• The San Luis Valley Health Access Risk Reduction Project, located at 1123 West Ave. in Alamosa, offers clean syringes, emergency overdose response training, free naloxone and more. Email [email protected] for information.

Overdose deaths from methamphetamine and other psychostimulants increased 50% in Colorado, from 349 people lost in 2019 to 525 in 2020.

The data also show a 62% increase in the number of people who died of a cocaine overdose. In 2020, 219 Coloradans fatally overdosed on cocaine, compared with 135 people in 2019.

"The recent increase in cocaine-involved deaths is being driven principally by co-involvement of fentanyl," Bol said in an email.

From 2018 through 2020, overdose death rates were highest in Rio Grande, Las Animas and Alamosa counties in rural southern Colorado. Rural areas of the state generally lack the resources of Front Range counties when it comes to substance use prevention and treatment, and fear of stigma around seeking care is a common barrier in less-populated communities.

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Faith Miller
Faith Miller

Faith Miller was a reporter with Colorado Newsline covering the Colorado Legislature, immigration and other stories.