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Colorado Sees Drug Overdose Rise With Virus-Related Stress

Drug overdose deaths have increased in Colorado amid the coronavirus pandemic.

About 130 people died of overdoses in May across the state, nearly doubling the average from recent years, The Gazette reported. State health department data reported 73 deaths in 2019, 79 in 2018 and 64 in 2017.

Mental Health Center of Denver President Dr. Carl Clark said the pattern of overdose deaths is “predictable” and is likely to get worse as the pandemic continues.

“There are certain things that we know that happen with a stressful event like a pandemic or 9/11 or if the stock market crashes,” Clark said. “Anxiety goes up, depression goes up, suicides go up, and people’s use of substances goes up.”

As the pandemic added stress for those in recovery, outreach programs and medical providers struggled to help with in-person meetings limited to reduce the spread of COVID-19 and state funding cut.

In Colorado, substance use treatment and prevention services, behavioral and mental health services saw a $20 million cut in funding as the state tax revenue plunged.

“We had people hospitalized for psychiatric issues. We have had people in life-threatening situations. We had people in our community die. So I cannot give up,” Natural Highs Founder and Executive Director Avani Dilger said. “I am too aware of what the fallout is. I’m also too aware of what we can do to help people.”

Nature Highs, the Boulder-based program, is designed to help teens with addiction and find alternatives to drugs. It serves more than 2,000 teens and families a year, but lost all of its volunteer staff during the pandemic.

Stout Street Foundation, an in-patient rehabilitation program, was also affected by the pandemic even though it doesn’t rely on state funding.

The Foundation’s primary program is a therapeutic community where 100 participants live and work together, officials said. It went under lockdown in February and remains virtual to limit the spread of COVID-19.

Foundation Development Director Carrie Packard said loneliness and boredom have become a big challenge.

“Normally September is the best month because you get to do so much more stuff,” Packard said. “We go to Elitch’s, the haunted house when it opens at the end of the month, we go there. But it’s hard because those are just — they’re off-limits right now.”

Financially, many providers have suffered because of the pandemic, said Jose Esquibel, associate director of the Colorado Consortium for Prescription Drug Abuse Prevention.

The state Office of Behavioral Health will receive a $41.6 million federal grant over the next two years to tackle the opioid crisis.

“This crisis continues to move rapidly, especially now with the conditions of social and personal stress brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic,” Esquibel said. “The new federal State Opioid Response funding is very welcome and is the largest pool of funds dedicated to addressing the impacts of the opioid crisis in Colorado."

He added: “We still have as much as a decade of work ahead of us in bending the arc of the opioid crisis.”

Copyright 2020 Associated Press. All rights reserved.

Associated Press
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