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P.J. Parmar, a family physician, tests a patient for the coronavirus in the parking lot of his clinic in Aurora on April 15, 2020. The medical clinic is part of the Mango House, a shared space for refugees and asylum seekers. (Moe Clark, The Colorado Sun)

Fueled by the coronavirus pandemic, April was likely the deadliest month in Colorado history, according to new data from the state Department of Public Health and Environment.

That month, 4,533 people died of any cause in the state. The toll is roughly 800 more people than died in March of this year and 1,300 more people than died in April 2019 in Colorado.


The latest from the coronavirus outbreak in Colorado:

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Coronavirus accounted for much of the increase in deaths, with 729 deaths in April due COVID-19, the disease the virus causes, according to death certificate data reported to federal and state authorities.

Kirk Bol, the manager of CDPHE’s vital statistics program, said April had the highest number of deaths since the state began keeping detailed monthly statistics in 1975. When considering population growth, Bol said April likely saw the highest number of deaths of any month in state history, but he can’t be sure.

The numbers are still preliminary; however, because of the way the reporting system works, they aren’t likely to decrease.

So far this year, Colorado has recorded more than 24,000 deaths. Coronavirus was a factor in at least 1,377 of those, according to the data, making it the third-leading specified cause of death in the state this year, behind cancer and heart disease.

Leading causes of death in Colorado in 2020*:

1. Cancer, 4,318 deaths
2. Heart disease, 4,095 deaths
3. COVID-19, 1,377 deaths
4. Chronic lower respiratory diseases, 1,363 deaths
5. Cerebrovascular diseases, 1,136 deaths
6. Alzheimer’s disease, 1,128 deaths
7. Unintentional injuries excluding drug overdoses, 1,124 deaths
8. Suicide, 580 deaths
9. Diabetes, 563 deaths
10. Chronic liver diseases, 527 deaths

* Numbers are as of July 27 and are preliminary, meaning they could increase as more data becomes available.
Source: Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment

The numbers provided to The Sun generally lag behind other reporting systems. For instance, as of Tuesday, CDPHE had reported 1,679 deaths due to COVID-19 — meaning the disease was listed as a cause of death on a death certificate.

Because they are part of a more comprehensive reporting system that involves reports submitted to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the numbers provided to The Sun haven’t yet caught up to other death counts from coronavirus. But they can be used to make an apples-to-apples comparison with other causes of death. The numbers also contain a sizable number of deaths with a cause of death currently listed as “other.” In many of those deaths, the cause is still being investigated, meaning the number of deaths assigned to more specific causes will likely increase in the coming months as those investigations conclude.

Despite their limitations, though, the numbers show the staggering impact COVID-19 has made in Colorado in a short time. The number of people who have died from COVID-19 is larger than the populations of four Colorado counties. It is more than double the typical seating capacity of an Airbus A380 jumbo jet, the world’s largest passenger airplane.

Needles from heroin-users are collected in bins at the Harm Reduction Action Center. The center counts more than 900 lives saved by training clients to use naloxone, the antidote to an opioid overdose. (Marvin Anani, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Drug-overdose deaths on the rise

But April was also a deadly month for other reasons.

Cancer and heart disease killed at least 685 people each in April, both increases from the same month last year, when they killed around 620 people each. The state saw a steep jump in Alzheimer’s deaths, to at least 223 in April of this year from 145 in April 2019. Deaths from suicide currently show a slight decline to 117 in April from 126 in April 2019.

Perhaps most alarming is an increase in deaths due to drug overdose, which rose to at least 119 in April from 67 in April 2019. That’s the highest monthly number of drug overdose deaths recorded in state statistics since at least 2017.

Through the first half of 2020, at least 542 people have died from accidental drug overdoses in Colorado, on pace to eclipse last year’s total of 899, according to CDPHE’s figures. And 2019 saw an increase over the previous year, as well, said Rob Valuck, the executive director of the Colorado Consortium for Prescription Drug Abuse Prevention.

Valuck said the increase could be due in part to a rise in the amount of the hyper-deadly synthetic opioid fentanyl that is in circulation in the illicit drug supply. But he said the pandemic also likely plays a role, both by increasing stress that could lead to more drug use and also by making it harder for people to receive and stick with treatment.

“It’s hard to disentangle right now,” he said. “We think it could be all of the above.”

In an example of the pandemic’s impact on substance abuse treatment, Community Reach Center announced Tuesday that it will be closing its intensive residential treatment program, the only one providing residential treatment for substance abuse in Adams County. CEO Rick Doucet said state reimbursement for the program wasn’t enough to keep up with the costs of running it. But he said the pandemic is also a part of the decision.

“We made it work as long as we could,” Doucet said in a statement, “however inadequate payment for services combined with the financial impact from COVID-19 has simply made the program unsustainable at this time.”

Valuck said treatment providers have begun seeing an uptick in people seeking help for substance abuse issues that have worsened during the pandemic. And he said the two problems need to have a more coordinated response.

For instance, he suggested that people filling out paperwork to get a coronavirus test should also be asked questions about substance use and mental health. That way, even if a person tests negative for the virus, health workers can identify someone who is suffering from another of the pandemic’s ills.

“That’s the hope, that we can do that,” he said.

John Ingold

John Ingold is a co-founder of The Colorado Sun and a reporter currently specializing in health care coverage. Born and raised in Colorado Springs, John spent 18 years working at The Denver Post. Prior to that, he held internships at the Rocky Ford Daily Gazette, the Colorado Springs...