More Coloradans Died of a Drug Overdose in 2019; Fentanyl-Related Deaths Spiked

CHI’s most up-to-date graphics show drug overdoses in Colorado through 2019
March 10, 2023

Data from the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE) indicate that 1,062 Coloradans died of drug overdoses in 2019 – the highest number since 2017, when 1,012 deaths were recorded.

This follows a decline in 2018, when strides were thought to have been made in initiatives to address the ongoing increase in overdose deaths. The rate of death due to drug overdose also reached an all-time high in 2019, with 17.8 deaths due to overdose per 100,000 people.

CHI created the graphics below to illustrate drug overdose trends through 2019. They are free for public use and available to download. CDPHE is the source of all data.

Colorado's 2019 Overdose Data Already Looked Bad, 2020 Could Be Worse

Early data from 2020 suggest that more Coloradans have died due to a drug overdose this year than in any recent year.

There were 433 deaths recorded involving prescription opioids, 347 involving methamphetamines, 211 involving heroin, and 134 involving cocaine in 2019. While deaths involving prescription opioids decreased in 2018, they increased again in 2019. Deaths involving methamphetamines have increased nearly six-fold since 2012.

There were 7.3 deaths due to prescription opioids per 100,000 people in 2019, an increase from 2018 and the highest death rate reported since 2000. There were 3.5 deaths due to heroin per 100,000 people in 2019, a slight decrease from the rate reported in 2018.

Rates of death due to drug overdose increased between 2018 and 2019. The highest death rates for both total drug poisonings and all opioid or heroin-related deaths were in 2019.

Overdose deaths that involved fentanyl, a powerful synthetic opioid typically used to treat patients with severe pain, but which is also illicitly produced, have increased at an alarming rate in the past several years. Since 2016, the death rate per 100,000 people has quadrupled. Some 220 deaths in 2019 involved fentanyl.

In 2019, Coloradans who are Black or African American had the highest rate of death from drug overdose (25.5 deaths due to overdose per 100,000 people), the highest rate across all years and race or ethnic groups. The death rate due to drug overdose among Coloradans who are American Indian or Alaska Native also nearly doubled between 2018 and 2019.

Coloradans who are Asian or Pacific Islander had the lowest death rates due to drug overdose across all years of data. However, there are relatively small sample sizes for those who are American Indian or Alaska Native or Asian or Pacific Islander, which can impact the reliability of estimates from year to year.

In a report earlier this year, SAMSHA addressed the exponential spike in overdose deaths in Black and other minority communities, citing unequal prevention and treatment, lack of culturally responsive and respectful care, and fear of legal consequences as some explanations for the disproportionate increase in overdose deaths. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) also recently explored the increase in American Indian/Native Americans impacted by overdose deaths, noting that American Indian/Native American communities experience high rates of physical, emotional, and historical trauma along with significant disparities in social and economic factors. These factors, on top of barriers to accessing medical and behavioral health services, put this group at risk for higher rates of death due to drug overdose.

While there are many effective treatments available for substance use disorder, access to these treatments is not always equitable. Addressing social factors like unstable housing as well as enacting policies that help address the systematic discrimination that fuels these social factors can be one way to help address these disparities. Employing culturally specific engagement strategies, promoting health insurance opportunities by behavioral health organizations, and creating a diverse workforce can also reduce barriers to substance use treatment for communities of color.