DAWN | The news that three women and two men were found dead in a Commerce City apartment in late February due apparently ingesting cocaine containing fentanyl has given many people pause, so law enforcement and health agencies are encouraging people to be more aware and prepared.

Among the dead were the parents of a four-month-old baby who was found alive at the scene, as well as another woman who survived.

It’s the kind of tragedy that the Tri-County Health Department’s HIV prevention and harm reduction program is trying to combat, as Colorado continues to grapple with an increasingly deadly drug supply.

“No medicine is safe at this time”, 17th Judicial District Attorney Brian Mason said in February while discussing the case.

The long drug addiction crisis in the United States shows no signs of stopping and, according to data from the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, drug deaths have increased during the pandemic. In 2020, 1,477 people died from drug overdoses statewide, including 143 in Adams County and 147 in Arapahoe County, an increase of nearly 50% from 2019.

However, the types of substances change. What was a crisis initially fueled by prescription pills and heroin has exploded to encompass methamphetamine and fentanyl, a super-potent synthetic opioid that can be deadly in even trace amounts. In 2020, the latest year for which complete data is available, more than a third of all overdose deaths in Colorado involved fentanyl.

Experts say what makes fentanyl so dangerous is that most drug users don’t even know they’re taking it. As with the Commerce City family, people take other drugs that dealers have mixed with fentanyl to increase potency, which also increases the risk of death.

Fentanyl and fentanyl analogs are mixed in counterfeit opioid pills, heroin, cocaine and methamphetamine,” the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said. in a report. “Illegally manufactured fentanyl, which is illegal, non-pharmaceutical fentanyl, likely contributes to deaths involving these other substances.”

In 2016, the CDC reported that synthetic opioids, primarily illegally manufactured fentanyl, were implicated in 23.7% of deaths involving prescription opioids, 37.4% involving heroin, and 40.3% involving cocaine. cocaine in 2016.

“It’s here in Colorado. It mixes with drugs it has never been mixed with and because of its potency it can really take someone by surprise,” said Dr. Lauren Mitchell, nurse manager of the harm reduction program and Tri-County HIV Prevention Center.

“Everyone should just assume, whatever drug they’re on, if it’s a street drug, it’s probably been contaminated with fentanyl,” she said. “So people need to be aware of that and act accordingly.”

In response to the crisis, the city of Denver launched a program last month where all residents can order Narcan, the drug that reverses opioid overdoses, and fentanyl test strips for free.

The program is unique to Denver, but the push to increase access to naloxone (the generic name for Narcan) is not.

“Our goal for this year is to try to normalize the wearing of naloxone,” Mitchell said.

The Tri-County Harm Reduction Program is responsible for controlling the spread of infectious diseases and preventing opioid overdoses. It provides testing for sexually transmitted diseases (STIs), distributes naloxone, and operates a needle exchange and disposal program.

The needle exchange program helps ensure that people who inject drugs use clean needles, which reduces their risk of infection and helps keep used needles off the street. Program staff spend a lot of time doing outreach with drug users, many of whom are homeless, in the camps and in Colfax, Mitchell said. It also has a physical location on Lima Street in Aurora, where it shares space with the nonprofit organization It Takes A Village.

During the warm months, staff say they help up to 30 people a week.

In addition to exchanging needles, they also distribute naloxone to people and help connect them to drug treatment services if that’s something they’re willing to consider.

“It’s about us trying to meet people where they are,” Mitchell said.

The program also provides training on the use of naloxone to any community group or business that requests it, and has a stock of naloxone that it distributes upon request.

“Anyone who wants naloxone, we want them to have it,” Mitchell said.

Over the past year, he has delivered a number of trainings at local motels, which have seen an increase in the number of customers overdosing. After training motel staff members in the administration of naloxone, Mitchell said there have been four opioid overdose reversals that he knows of.

The demand for services seems to be increasing. The program distributed more naloxone in 2021 — 560 kits — than any other year, she said. Staff say they have already distributed 77 kits this year.

In partnership with the City of Aurora, the program also opened a needle disposal kiosk in front of the MLK Library along the Colfax Hallway. The kiosk is a secure place where people can drop off syringes, which are then disposed of by a medical waste company.

In April, the program will launch two new initiatives. It will begin using a mobile campervan that will travel to hard-to-reach communities to provide HIV testing, hepatitis C testing, STI testing, and needle access services. And it will open a second physical location for syringe access services in Commerce City.

As Adams and Arapahoe counties prepare to set up their own health services next year, the future of the program remains uncertain. All of her services are fully funded by outside grants, Mitchell said, and she hopes both counties recognize the value of the work they do and want them to continue.

“We just want to provide the best services to our people and our communities,” she said.

Tri-County’s syringe access services are available at 303-363-3077, and Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays 1-4 p.m. at 1475 Lima Street, Aurora, 80010.

For a list of pharmacies where naloxone can be purchased without a prescription, go to stoptheclockcolorado.org/map.

— Photojournalist Philip Poston contributed to this story

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