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Accidents cause most El Paso County autopsied deaths, new report shows

June 5, 2018 Updated: June 6, 2018 at 9:23 am
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Accidents kill most El Paso County residents whose unexpected deaths require an autopsy, says a recent report by the Coroner's Office.

Motor vehicle crashes, drug overdoses, falls, fires and the like accounted for 42 percent of the deaths resulting in 902 autopsies last year, the report says.

Most of the accidental deaths involved drugs, and heroin was the drug of choice.

Among 147 overdose deaths, heroin was the primary or secondary drug in 57, the report says.

Prescription opioids and methamphetamine weren't far behind, and 18 percent of medications in the overdoses were prescribed by the decedent's physician.

"Drugs are always big," said Dr. Leon Kelly, the county's deputy chief medical examiner. "It shows we have a continued opioid problem."

 

At-fault drivers in 22 of 34 fatal crashes had drugs or alcohol in their systems, but the substances were the suspected primary cause in only three cases, the report says. Thirty deceased drivers and passengers weren't wearing seat belts.

Marijuana was not singled out in the report, but the office did find marijuana metabolites in 20 percent of all 2017 deaths. The report doesn't say whether the level of metabolites indicated impairment at the time of death. Metabolites can linger days to weeks in chronic users.

Natural deaths ranked second, accounting for 308 autopsies. More than half were attributed to cardiovascular disease. But most natural deaths don't require autopsies.

The Larimer County Coroner's Office, for example, reported 935 natural deaths in 2017, only 40 of which required an autopsy.

That office performed autopsies for only 94 accidental deaths and 70 suicides.

Of Douglas County's 150 autopsies last year, 51 were ruled natural deaths while accidental deaths came in a close second at 47.

The Denver County coroner has not published an annual report since 2015, but that year it performed 1,114 autopsies, 531 of them natural deaths and 341 accidental.

El Paso County's high number of medical-related deaths helped drive up the average age of autopsied decedents in the county to 42, but teens still accounted for a large proportion of suicide and homicide victims.

The county was named the nation's teen suicide capital after a 2015 study found 46 of the area's residents ages 10 to 19 had taken their lives since 2013 - then the highest rate in the state and, some argued, the nation. The following year, another 15 youths died by suicide.

That number dipped to 13 last year, but suicide still ranked as the county's leading cause of child deaths, the report showed. Second was child homicides, with nine.

Seventy-five percent of suicide victims last year were men in their 40s.

Kelly said he was encouraged when teen suicides largely dropped after last April, a trend that has continued into 2018. A year ago, the county had reported 10 youth suicides; this year, there are two.

"I think that is a testament of schools' and parents' commitment to the issue," Kelly said. "We've really turned the tide here with our joint efforts."

That's the reason to break down and study the county's deaths, Kelly said. It "highlights things that we as a community can focus on to prevent deaths," he said.

Not all deaths are preventable. But half of all victims of motor vehicle fatalities crashes weren't wearing seat belts.

Children are still dying because of unsafe sleeping conditions, including sleeping with parents.

"Every one of those is preventable," Kelly said. "It may get more complicated than that, but they're preventable."

The Coroner's Office investigates any sudden, unexpected and non-natural deaths to determine the cause and which of six manners: natural, accident, suicide, homicide, undetermined (meaning the cause isn't clear or several causes are possible), and unclassified (pertaining only to the death of a fetus in utero).

The office also performed 313 autopsies for 19 other counties in 2017. Those deaths were not included in the county's breakdown.

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