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Drug Overdoses in Colorado: A Statewide Challenge

More Coloradans have been dying of drug overdoses each year for nearly a decade. It’s a health crisis that’s been increasingly in the public eye, but the newest data are still startling: Some 912 people died of an overdose in 2016 – a state record. Preliminary data from 2017 suggest that more than 950 died of an overdose last year.

A new analysis from CHI examines what regions of Colorado struggle the most with drug overdoses, using data from the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment’s Vital Statistics Program. The analysis also explores which substances are causing the most overdose deaths. (While opioids are a big factor, drugs like methamphetamine and cocaine are also playing a role in the increase.)

It’s no surprise that some of the state’s biggest counties — El Paso, Denver, Adams and Jefferson — have the most overdose deaths. After all, they have the most people.

Still, all the state’s large counties have seen an increase in overdose deaths in the last 15 years. El Paso County, for instance, lost 141 people in 2016 compared with just 60 in 2001.

And pay close attention to our new maps, which show how widespread the increase in overdose rates has been — and how much the overdose crisis is affecting rural Colorado.

To get an idea of the change, let’s look at the counties with the 10 highest rates of overdose in 2001 compared with counties with the highest rate in 2016:

County 2001: Deaths per 100.000 Residents   County 2016: Deaths per 100,000 Residents
Las Animas 22.3   Huerfano 152.6
Teller 19.9   Rio Blanco 52.2
Denver 13.7   Las Animas 50.9
Adams 12.1   Montezuma 42.8
Fremont 11.6   Rio Grande 38.5
El Paso 11.4   Conejos 34.9
Pueblo 10.7   Fremont 30.2
Summit 10.3   Pueblo 27.7
Arapahoe 10   Logan 24.5
Montrose 8.6   Routt 23.2


In 2001, some of the state’s biggest counties, including Denver and El Paso, had some of the state’s highest overdose rates. But in 2016, all the highest rates were in rural counties, with the exception of Pueblo.

And, strikingly, a county with the highest overdose rate in 2001 (a rate of 22.3) would not even make the top 10 in 2016. This partly reflects the small number of people in Colorado’s rural counties — just a handful of overdose deaths can result in a high rate — but it also shows how drug overdoses have grown from a problem to a full-fledged crisis. In a county like 6,600-person Huerfano, few are untouched by drug overdoses.

[Read our new report at]

Overdose deaths are tragic reminders of the potential consequences of substance use disorders. But substance use is also tied to other significant health issues — including the spread of blood-borne diseases like Hepatitis C and other physical and behavioral health challenges — that affect many more than the 912 people who we know died of an overdose in 2016.

At CHI, we have been following the legislature’s efforts to respond to the opioid and substance use crisis. We’ve developed a policy framework for responding to the opioid crisis that includes prevention and provider practice, treatment and harm reduction.

But it’s clear that this problem, which has complex roots, will require complex solutions from policymakers, medical and behavioral health professionals, law enforcement and the rest of us. CHI will continue to follow and flag significant developments in substance use and behavioral health in Colorado.

Do you have a story to tell about how your community is responding to drug overdoses? Reach out and let us know.

Find Jackie Zubrzycki on Twitter: @jzubrzycki @cohealthinst

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