‘A grim milestone’: Colorado sets record for overdose deaths in 2020

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DENVER (KDVR) — More than 1,200 people died from drug overdoses in Colorado in 2020, according to new numbers obtained from the state.

The 1,216 overdose deaths marks a grim, new record for Colorado, up from 1,062 in 2019. 

 “The grief, quite honestly, is beginning to become unbearable,” says Lisa Raville. 

Raville is the executive director of Denver’s Harm Reduction Action Center, which has been pushing for ways for substance-users to do so safely.

“In a magical world, there’d be no drugs, but we live here,” she says. “And not only do people use drugs here, we’re in the worst overdose crisis we’ve ever had here. We can do better.”

Statewide, 448 people died from a Fentanyl-related overdose in 2020, more than twice the 2019 total. 

Psychologists say it’s likely the COVID-19 pandemic contributed to the spike in numbers. 

“The isolation is driving a lot of it,” says Dr. Liz Chamberlain. “When we have a lot of stress, a lot of times we want to just get rid of it, or push it away, so a lot of time people will turn to substances to help them do that.”

Roughly 85% of the people who died from overdose in Denver in 2020 were not experiencing homelessness. 

Numbers show about 65% of people who died from overdose in Denver died inside a home. 

“We wish people would use with someone else, so if it’s an opioid overdose, especially heroin or fentanyl in particular, that someone’s there to recognize and respond,” says Raville. 

State totals have not been finalized, so it’s possible the 1,216 number could climb even higher.

A Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment spokesperson confirmed it’s the highest total on record:

“We have the ability to query cause-specific mortality, such as drug overdose deaths, back to 1975.  The year-to-date number for drug overdose deaths in 2020 is indeed the highest during this 45-year time period.  Based on some old hard-copy publications from prior to 1975, going back to 1940, it’s evident there were no years for which there were more overdose deaths, based on comparisons to even total injury deaths.”

The Denver Department of Public Health and Environment has rolled out some new tactics in the past year or so to try and fight the problem. 

In early 2020, they launched a “Wellness Winnie” vehicle, that provides resources and education to substance users. Through Wellness Winnie and various syringe exchange programs, a spokesperson for the city says more than 5,000 Naloxone kits were distributed, resulting in at least 892 reversals.

You can find more information on how to seek help on the city’s website.

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