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As Denver’s record overdose deaths continue, DDPHE emphasizes prevention

International Overdose Awareness Day of remembrance prompts reminders of available resources 

The Denver Department of Public Health & Environment’s (DDPHE) Community & Behavioral Health (CBH) division is observing International Overdose Awareness Day on Monday, 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 and their friends and family members. These include naloxone, harm reduction strategies, and prescription drug safety and disposal.

“With multiple factors contributing to the increasing overdose risk, including COVID-19, unemployment and other economic factors, this year’s Overdose Awareness Day is more critical than ever,” says Robert McDonald, Executive Director of DDPHE and the Public Health Administrator for Denver. “Given the increase in overdose deaths, we want to be as proactive as possible by addressing these very preventable deaths.”

International Overdose Awareness Day is a global event held annually on August 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. Multiple events are planned around the state, including in Denver at the Harm Reduction Action Center (2-4 p.m. at 112 East 8th Avenue).

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 are faster and more difficult to stop than those caused by other opioids. As of August 21, 2020, the total number of drug-related deaths in the City and County of Denver is 184, compared with 213 for the entire year of 2019. The percentage change in drug-related deaths for the six months of January-June from 2019 to 2020 is 83%, with fentanyl-related overdose deaths experiencing a 354% increase in those same timeframes.

“There is no ‘one face’ to substance use. It impacts parents, siblings, friends, and coworkers, often without people close to them even knowing,” says Marion Rorke, Substance Use Resource Coordinator for CBH. “It’s important for everyone, but people who use drugs and their support networks in particular, to know how to recognize and respond to an overdose, and to carry naloxone in the event of an opioid overdose.”

On a citywide and statewide basis, multiple strategies have been employed to address overdose deaths:

  • Drugs purchased outside of a pharmacy are not always what they are marketed as, so even if someone does not typically use opioids, they should still consider keeping naloxone, a medication designed to rapidly reverse opioid overdose, on hand. Find out more about naloxone and where to get it at StoptheClockColorado.org, which lists pharmacies that stock naloxone in Denver (there may be a cost associated based on health insurance). There is a standing order for pharmacies, so you do not need an individual prescription to receive it from a pharmacy. Or, visit BringNaloxoneHome.org for more information on how naloxone works.
  • For people who use opioids and want medication-assisted treatment, they can visit the Denver Health emergency department 24/7 for an immediate assessment and induction on buprenorphine. They can also access treatment for other substances, as well. Denver Health’s Outpatient Behavioral Health Services can be reached at 303-602-4851.
  • For other types of treatment or mental health support, residents can contact the Colorado Crisis Services at 1-844-493-8255, text “TALK” to 38255, or visit the facility at 4353 East Colfax Avenue. In addition, resources are available at Let’s Talk Colorado.
  • Syringe services programs offer a host of services for people who use substances including naloxone. Contact Access Point at 303-837-1501; Harm Reduction Action Center at 303-572-7800; or Lifepoint at 720-385-6898.
  • If a resident has old or unused medications lying around, learn more about safe use, safe storage and safe disposal from Take Meds Seriously, the City’s medication disposal resources, or contact the Colorado Take Meds Back program, which has an interactive map to medication take-back locations around the state.

For more information or resources, visit DDPHE or CBH