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Denver looks for solutions after increase in overdose deaths

There were a total of 1,477 drug overdoses in the state in 2020. The annual average over the past five years was 970.

COLORADO, USA — Overdose numbers in Colorado increased substantially during the pandemic, and numbers in Denver are trending in a similar direction in 2021.

According to the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE), there were a total of 1,477 drug overdoses in the state last year. The annual average over the past five years was 970. 

Denver's Department of Public Health and Environment (DDPHE) also saw an increase from 225 total overdose deaths in 2019 to 370 in 2020.

Already this year in Denver, 111 people have died from overdoses.

"That has led to a lot of sleepless nights from my perspective," Jeff Holliday, Public Health Manager of DDPHE, said. 

Holliday's job is to analyze the numbers and come up with solutions. He believes it is hard to ignore that this increase came during a global pandemic.

"As people become more anxious and more depressed, it's not altogether surprising that some people self-medicate through use of substances," Holiday said.

RELATED: Under cover of COVID, fentanyl and isolation fuel spiraling overdose crisis

Pandemic stressors paired with an increase in the presence of fentanyl, a highly deadly and addictive drug being added to some of the illegal supply, has created skyrocketing numbers and concern for the future.

Data says that 2020 was also a time of increased substance use in Colorado.

"I worry about what's going to happen in five, eight, ten years from now with all these people [who] for the first time misused a substance this past year," said Robert Valuck, Director of the Center for Prescription Drug Abuse Prevention at the University of Colorado. 

Valuck points to various studies that show it can take years for people to eventually develop an addiction. 

"I think there's awareness of it, but we really just need to put everything we have towards it," Valuck said.

Two weeks ago, the City of Denver and the Mental Health Center of Denver opened up a first-ever Behavioral Health Solutions Center where people can go, or be taken, to get help and temporary housing while going through a mental health or substance crisis.

RELATED: New Denver center offers alternative to jail for people experiencing behavioral crisis

The city hopes new solutions like this, along with doubling down on programs that have worked in the past, will help alleviate the numbers. 

Denver's Chief Medical Examiner, Dr. Jim Caruso, has issued a standing order that DDPHE staff and Park Rangers can administer naloxone to reverse an opioid overdose.

DDPHE is also urging members of the public to get trained in administering naloxone for free to help family members, friends or strangers who may need their help.

That training can happen inside a city RV called Wellness Winnie, which offers assistance and resources to underserved areas of the community.

"Substance Abuse Navigators are also on hand to co-respond with a variety of city agencies (including DPD) to offer help in real-time to those with substance misuse issues," DDPHE said.

Along with these resources, Holliday hopes the end to the pandemic may help create more options, forcing overdose and substance use numbers to eventually trend downward. 

"Every bit of that makes a difference in recovering the struggles that we're seeing as it relates to behavioral healthcare," Holliday said.

RELATED: New center in Aurora provides safe space for recovery community

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