DENVER — The lethality of fentanyl has forced its way into mainstream conversations, and a lot of people's lives are on the line.
Fentanyl was connected to more than 900 deaths in 2021, almost double that of the year before, when 540 people died from fentanyl-involved drug overdoses.
The 2022 numbers haven't been completed yet.
From PSAs across social media, to district attorneys and law enforcement trying to reach families and emergency rooms rolling out programs handing out naloxone to reverse an overdose, there are across the board efforts to make fentanyl a part of everyday conversations.
Based off metrics, the Keep the Party Safe campaign, run through the Colorado Consortium for Prescription Drug Abuse Prevention, was successful at getting people's attention on TV and online.
It talks about common safety checklists, like having a designated driver or using a helmet when out on a bike ride, and it applies that same thought process to fentanyl. That includes a designated person who isn't drinking or taking any pills and keeping naloxone in the group.
Dr. Katie Sprinkel with the Medical Center of Aurora Emergency Department said the number of patients hasn't gone down, but she has seen more people interested in getting treatment.
"I am seeing a difference," Sprinkel said. "Education is crucial. The biggest difference I'm seeing, more people are aware and interested and able to access to treatment."
She said same goes for Naloxone.
"Similarly, for Narcan," Sprinkel said. "More people know what it is and how to use it. It seems to be less stigma around its use."
Dr. Rob Valuck with the Colorado Consortium for Prescription Drug Abuse Prevention said they conduct surveys before and after campaigns and noticed a change too.
"We did see knowledge goes up," Valuck said. "Now I understand, more people think it applies to them."
But for all those steps forward, everyone said they are up against a powerful enemy. It's one that haunts 17th Judicial District Attorney Brian Mason.
"Fentanyl is the most dangerous drug in the world right now," he said. "The most egregious example of that is five deaths in Commerce City."
Five people, Mason explained, thought they were taking cocaine, not fentanyl.
"They thought they were taking a drug for fun, not putting their lives at risk," he said. "The tragedy and shock of that crime, it stays with me to my core."
Mason said he's lost sleep over not being able to hold anyone accountable, adding that the case has essentially gone cold.
"To charge someone for distributing is really important to me," he said. "We haven't been able put together a case that has the evidence to support it."
Across the board, experts said doubling down on messaging for kids and parents is key. So is a bigger push for more naloxone and access to treatment.
"We'll never get ahead of it [unless we] really focus on early childhood, young adult detection, and better behavioral health in general," Valuck said.
The last few years have been really tough. Every year, there have been more drug overdose deaths than the previous in Colorado, and that includes overdose deaths involving fentanyl.
Here are the most recent numbers from the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment. The 2022 number have yet to be completed.
Total drug overdose deaths (including all prescription and illicit drugs):
- 2020: 1,477 deaths
- 2021: 1,881
- 2022 (provisional): 1,223
Total opioid-involved drug overdose deaths (all forms of opioid, including prescription, fentanyl, and heroin):
- 2020: 956 deaths
- 2021: 1,258
- 2022 (provisional): 778
Total fentanyl-involved drug overdose deaths:
- 2020: 540 deaths
- 2021: 912
- 2022 (provisional): 610
CDPHE also shared this statement:
"And from our Overdose Prevention Program, CDPHE continues to work to increase community awareness of fentanyl contamination in the illicit drug market and support local overdose prevention efforts. In addition, CDPHE also distributed 124,814 doses of naloxone, the opioid overdose antidote, to organizations around the state in fiscal year 2021-22. For comparison's sake, CDPHE distributed 51,631 doses of naloxone in FY 20-21. Although 2022 has shown a preliminary reduction in overdose deaths compared to the previous two years, CDPHE continues to work with other state agencies and our local partners to reduce the number of deaths due to overdose even further."
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