Feb 9, 2024 - News

While overdose deaths in Denver rose, emergency calls fell

Data: Denver Department of Public Safety; Chart: Axios Visuals
Data: Denver Department of Public Safety; Chart: Axios Visuals

Emergency calls for drug overdoses in Denver fell by 27% between 2022 and 2023, all while fatal overdoses rose during the same span.

Why it matters: It's a trend alarming advocates who are linking it to a 2022 fentanyl bill they said would lead fewer people to call emergency lines due to potential repercussions.

By the numbers: Denver 911 recorded 1,535 fewer calls last year coded in its system as overdoses, according to data obtained by Axios from the emergency dispatch center.

  • Meanwhile, at least 560 people in Denver died from overdoses in 2023, per preliminary data from the city, up from 453 people in 2022.

Context: The controversial bill signed by Gov. Jared Polis in 2022 intended to address the spike in overdoses involving fentanyl.

  • While making possession between 1 and 4 grams a felony, it also made it possible for people reporting an overdose to face potential charges.
  • To address this, state Rep. Chris deGruy Kennedy (D-Lakewood), who opposed the 2022 measure, sponsored a bill last year to ensure people who called 911 to report overdoses had criminal immunity.
  • Kennedy tells us he wanted it to help in cases where people felt apprehension.

The other side: Advocates like Harm Reduction Action Center executive director Lisa Raville warned the 2022 law would lead to fewer people calling 911 to report drug-related incidents.

  • Raville tells us deGruy Kennedy's bill hasn't helped reverse this trend.

What they're saying: Sara, who asked only to be identified by her first name, tells us she's witnessed multiple drug overdoses over the past eight years, which she's spent largely unhoused. She had limited knowledge about the two laws.

  • The 44-year-old says when those emergency situations happen, people usually freeze: Panic sets in, and people have to consider whether calling first responders is worth the risk.
  • She says someone could have an arrest warrant, or be intoxicated while making the call, which a person in that position often considers.
  • Sara said she worries about perception from first responders and that callers may not be viewed as "someone who is trying to save someone" but instead as "scum of the earth."

The bottom line: Kennedy said it's too early to infer anything from the data.

  • Raville didn't want to make a direct correlation between the drop in calls and the 2022 bill, but said the trend in Denver merits a larger conversation about its impact.
Data: Denver Department of Public Safety; Map: Tory Lysik/Axios Visuals
Data: Denver Department of Public Safety; Map: Tory Lysik/Axios Visuals

Between 2018 and 2023, calls for overdoses peaked in 2021.

Zoom in: Denver 911 director Andrew Dameron says the agency's overall call volume was "through the roof" that year — something he attributes to more people being out and about after the 2020 lockdown and social distancing requirements.

  • Denver 911 got just under 1.3 million calls last year, city data shows.

Of note: It's possible for dispatchers to get a call for an overdose that isn't coded as one due to information provided to emergency dispatchers, Dameron tells us.

  • A response is based on what details a caller provides: "We are not in the business of diagnosing people," Dameron says about dispatchers.

Between the lines: There are at least 10 codes out of the 188 used by the city's emergency agencies that could indicate an overdose, city public safety department spokesperson Kelly Jacobs tells us.

  • The options also cover things like poisonings, someone taking the wrong medication or a child ingesting a cleaning solution.
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