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Drug overdose deaths across Colorado eased slightly in 2018 for the first time in years, led by a drop in prescription painkiller deaths that have been a root cause of the opioid epidemic.

Across the state, 974 people died from drug overdoses last year — a 38-person drop from the state’s record death toll set one year earlier in 2017, according to the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment. It was the first decline for Colorado since 2012.

The slight drop was felt locally as well, as the number of drug fatalities in El Paso County dropped to 130 people from a high of 147 in 2017. It was the first drop in the county since 2009.

Much of that drop was because of a modest decline in the number of people who died with prescription painkillers in their bodies — a 24-person drop, to 349 fatalities. Yet even as health care experts called the figures “encouraging,” they remained reluctant to proclaim that Colorado had turned a corner on the opioid epidemic, which has ravaged the state and the nation for years.

Last year’s death toll, for example, still ranked as the second highest statewide total in at least two decades — the farthest back for which detailed data exists.

“We are hoping this indicates some sort of plateauing of overall drug overdose deaths,” said Kirk Bol, manager of the state health department’s vital statistics program.

“A very modest goal, of course, to see a stop in the rise of deaths across the board. But that might be significant in some respects.”

Rob Valuck, executive director of the Colorado Consortium for Prescription Drug Abuse Prevention, was even more cautious.

Years of work pushing physicians to prescribe fewer opioids appear to be paying off, he said. Doctors across the nation, including in Colorado, appear to be doling out fewer painkillers, such as oxycodone.

But too many people still died from opioids, which also include the illicit drug heroin. Deaths involving heroin, for example, held at roughly the same high level across the state as the last few years.

“It’s like turning an ocean liner. You don’t do it overnight,” Valuck said. “So I see it as good news in that it isn’t worse news. But it’s still the second largest number in history — still second highest it’s ever been. How good is that?”

Many also feared a third wave in the opioid epidemic: the emergence of fentanyl. The synthetic opioid is far more potent than other prescription painkillers or heroin and has caused opioid-related deaths to skyrocket along the East Coast.

Originally a prescription synthetic opioid painkiller, fentanyl has since been manufactured illicitly overseas and shipped to communities across the nation. It’s known to be mixed into batches of heroin, meth or cocaine — often without drug users’ knowledge.

Statewide, 102 people died last year with the drug in their system — a 21 person increase from 2017, and more than twice as many people as had been killed from it in the early part of the decade.

The drug’s emergence has been slower to take root in the Pikes Peak region, though nine people still overdosed with it in their systems in 2018.

“Colorado is kind of following a national trend,” said Joe Hanel, a spokesman for the Colorado Health Institute.

“Especially on the East Coast, fentanyl is driving a lot of the overdoses over there. And it seems as though we might be seeing that coming this way, toward us, in the interior West as well.”

Stimulants — specifically methamphetamine and cocaine — also continued their deadly resurgence in Colorado.

Statewide deaths involving cocaine rose to their highest level in a decade, at 128. And the 17 such fatalities in El Paso County were the highest in at least 20 years.

Methamphetamine — being relatively cheap and easily accessible on the streets — also continued to grow in popularity. Deaths of Coloradans who had used meth reached 318 last year — more than eight times the number a decade ago, and nearly 20 times the figure from 1999.

And while methamphetamine deaths dropped in El Paso County last year to 57, that figure remained among the highest death totals for that drug in at least 20 years.

Very often, the people who overdosed were using multiple drugs when they died, Bol said.

Until each of those drugs are addressed, Colorado will continue to see nearly three people dying every day of drug overdoses — including one person every three days in El Paso County, health experts said. Just as important is a need for public health workers, doctors and medical professionals to continue their work reining in the opioid epidemic, experts said.

The question, experts said, is whether last year was a statistical blip or a harbinger of real change.

“People around the state have been working really hard to fight this horrible trend,” Hanel said. “The fact that we saw a drop this year — a lot of that’s probably a testament to their work.”

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