Overdose deaths continue to rise exponentially prevention is crucial

Published on August 31, 2022

International Overdose Awareness Day prompts reminders about available resources

The Denver Department of Public Health & Environment (DDPHE) is observing International Overdose Awareness Day today, August 31 – a day of remembrance of those lost to overdose – by reminding the community of the many critical services available for people who use substances, as well as their friends and family members.

“We continue to see multiple factors contributing to the unprecedented overdose risk, including more widespread access to fentanyl, making this year’s Overdose Awareness Day more critical than ever,” says Robert McDonald, Executive Director of DDPHE and the Public Health Administrator for Denver. “The opioid epidemic is taking an enormous toll on our community, and we must remain as proactive as possible to address these very preventable deaths.”

International Overdose Awareness Day is a global event held annually on Aug.31 that aims to raise awareness of overdoses and reduce the stigma of drug-related deaths. The day is also meant to acknowledge the grief felt by friends and family as they remember their loved ones.

“International Overdose Awareness Day is a time to remember those in our community who we’ve lost to overdose, acknowledge the grief of the family and friends left behind, and recommit to ending the stigma of drug-related deaths,” Mayor Michael B. Hancock said. “Through treatment, harm reduction and support we can reduce the toll of overdose on our families and in our community.”

Multiple events are planned around the state, including in Denver at the Harm Reduction Action Center (1:30-4 p.m. at 112 East 8th Avenue). The Denver City and County Building will also be lit purple on Aug. 30-31 in honor of the day.

Fatal overdoses continue to increase in Denver, especially those linked to fentanyl, a powerful synthetic opioid that is up to 50 times more potent than heroin with the potential to cause overdoses that have a faster onset and more difficult to stop than those caused by other opioids. The total number of drug-related deaths in the City and County of Denver in 2021 was 473, compared with 370 in 2020 and 225 in 2019. The percentage change in drug-related deaths from 2019 to 2021 was 110%, with fentanyl-related overdose deaths experiencing a 308% increase over the same timeframe.

As Denver’s public health agency, DDPHE has a number of strategies to reduce overdoses in our community, including harm reduction programs and other innovative ways the city is tackling the opioid epidemic.

Family Advocacy Support Team

In 2021, the Office of the Medical Examiner (OME) created and launched the Family Advocacy Support Team (FAST), a new, groundbreaking program that provides support services to people who’ve experienced an unexplained, violent, or suspicious death of a loved one, including those who died by suicide or overdose.

FAST services are available to surviving family members throughout the grief process. The team’s goal is to promote healthy grieving and coping skills so families and loved ones can process their grief and loss in a meaningful way.

FAST has been such a successful addition to the services provided by OME, other medical examiner and coroners’ offices across the country are working with the program’s creator to replicate the program in their cities and states.

Access to harm reduction supplies

Harm reduction strategies are also an important tool in overdose prevention. DDPHE has free overdose prevention supplies, including naloxone and fentanyl test strips, easily available to Denver residents through mail order or by visiting Wellness Winnie, the department’s mobile behavioral health unit. If you live outside of Denver, several pharmacies also distribute Naloxone. Visit stoptheclockcolorado.org to explore an interactive map of locations where Naloxone can be obtained.

“Fatal and non-fatal overdoses in Denver are entirely preventable; with more access to harm reduction supplies, such as naloxone and fentanyl test strips, we can create safer communities,” says Marion Rorke, Substance Use Resource Coordinator for DDPHE. “It’s important to know that if naloxone is used on someone who is non-responsive, and they had not taken opioids, no harm will be done.”

Denver Fentanyl Action Summit

The opioid crisis is affecting communities across the country, and Colorado is not immune. On September 12-13, DDPHE will host the Denver Fentanyl Action Summit—an invitation only event, open to public health professionals, clinicians, researchers, and people working in the treatment and addiction space. The summit will bring together public health professionals from across different fields to share learnings, resources, and best practices to mobilize action related to substance use to save lives. The goal of the event is to highlight emerging strategies for managing the opioid epidemic and best practices related to harm reduction, treatment and recovery, and community-level solutions.  

Participants will leave the Summit with accurate, timely, and actionable information about the current state of substance use, including fentanyl, in the metro area as well as resources, tools, and relationships to help us help those struggling with addiction.

For additional information and resources, please visit our website: www.denvergov.org/dphe.