Opioid overdose deaths up 54% in 2020, fentanyl fatalities spike


November 5, 2021, Updated January 13, 2022

NOTE: An earlier version of this analysis used the term “prescription opioids,” in line with previous drug categorizations used by the Centers for Disease Control and others. This version uses the term “opioid analgesics” to reflect the increasing use of fentanyl outside of prescriptions.

Drug overdose deaths were already on the rise in Colorado, but the COVID-19 pandemic had an unprecedented impact on substance use and access to treatment and support options. Social isolation, the pandemic-induced recession, and changes to care delivery brought about by shut-downs contributed to the most significant one-year increase in drug overdose deaths in recent memory.

New research and interactive graphics released by the Colorado Health Institute (CHI) based on data from the Colorado Department Public Health & Environment (CDPHE) show that 1,477 Coloradans died of drug overdoses in 2020 — the most overdose deaths ever recorded in the state and a 38% increase from 2019.

“The COVID-19 pandemic had a profound impact on Coloradans’ lives and well-being. Unfortunately, these data make clear that 2020 was also marked by another escalating epidemic,” said coauthor and CHI Policy Analyst Lindsey Whittington. “The increase in overdose deaths in our state is part of a tragic national trend.”

The number of overdose deaths due to opioids, a category which includes opioid analgesic and heroin, increased by 54%. Colorado has seen a particularly alarming increase in the number of deaths involving a specific type of opioid: fentanyl. In 2020, overdoses involving fentanyl made up about 68% of all opioid analgesic deaths. Between 2019 and 2020, the number of overdose deaths involving fentanyl more than doubled.

The COVID-19 pandemic appears to have exacerbated the impact of overdose deaths in many communities of color. Black or African-American Coloradans had the highest rate of death due to drug overdose across all racial or ethnic groups, followed by American Indian or Alaska Native Coloradans. The rates for both groups increased substantially in 2020. While systemic gaps in access to prevention and treatment services already existed before the pandemic, the impacts of COVID-19 only made access more difficult for these communities.

The authors also emphasize the danger of COVID-19 for people with substance use disorders. Those who are struggling with opioid-use disorders have an increased risk of serious illness and death from COVID-19, as these substances negatively affect lung and heart health.

“The data in our report represent real people, real lives lost, and real communities affected by those loses,” Whittington said. “We hope this report provides the data needed to expand and improve prevention, treatment, and recovery efforts in Colorado.”

About the Colorado Health Institute

The Colorado Health Institute is a nonprofit and independent health policy research organization. CHI believes that good health policy leads to a healthier Colorado. Every day we bring research, insight, and expertise to leaders across the state, because informed decisions lead to better health for all.

Contact for the Colorado Health Institute

Joe Hanel, communications director, hanelj@coloradohealthinstitute.org or 720.382.7093