More visitors than locals died in Summit County last year, coroner report says

Jack Queen

The Summit County coroner recorded a total of 82 deaths last year, according to the office’s 2016 annual report. That’s down slightly from 2015, which saw an all-time record of 87 cases, but still up significantly from 60 deaths in 2014.

Visitors to Summit County accounted for more deaths than locals for the first time since 2010. Several of those people died of suicide, contributing to a total of 13 in 2016 — the highest yearly total on record.

“It was another busy year,” coroner Regan Wood said. “We used to hold steady at around 70 (deaths), but those days are probably over.”

Related: Suicide rate in Summit County reaching record levels

As of last Friday, 13 people had died in the county so far this year, including two skier deaths and one undetermined cause. The rest were ruled accidental.

Wood cited a growing population and strong economy as major factors in attracting more visitors, and consequently, more deaths. A majority of last year’s decedents, 42, were not Summit County residents.

Among those, the most common cause of death was cardiac-related, which Wood said reflected the toll that high elevation can take on the body — and the circulatory system in particular.

Wood said that in several such cases involving non-residents last year, the deceased had been cleared by their home doctors to travel to high elevations but still succumbed to fatal cardiac events.

In one case, she said, an elderly person passed a heart “stress test” at sea level but died of a sudden cardiac event during her first day in Summit.

“We find that doctors around the country aren’t too aware of the effects on a person’s system of being at altitude,” Wood said. “They’re fine at sea level, and then they come up here and their condition changes.”

The precise effects of elevation on the human body are still not very well understood. Low oxygen concentrations appear to contribute to problems like pulmonary hypertension, or a narrowing of the blood vessels that can strain the heart.

While the incidence of the condition at high elevations isn’t precisely known, local cardiologist Warren Johnson has previously told the Daily that it’s an issue in the High Country.

“It’s a very prevalent problem up here,” he said. “Some people tolerate it fine, at least for some time, and then there’s others who can’t even be up here for the first year. Some people just can’t acclimate.”

Elevation was directly implicated in at least two deaths last year. Those were caused by high-altitude pulmonary edema, a potentially life-threatening accumulation of fluid in the lungs that typically occurs at 8,200 feet or higher. The elevations of Summit County’s towns range from just over 9,000 feet to roughly 9,600.

There were eight motor vehicle fatalities in 2016, the highest total since 2011. The Colorado State Patrol has reported that there were six fatal crashes last year, up from three the previous year.

That reflected a national trend of higher traffic fatalities, which experts attributed to low gas prices, a healthy economy and continued problems with distracted and drunken driving, among others.

Accidental overdoses decreased last year, declining to four compared with seven the previous year. Of those, two were caused by the accidental ingestion of laced drugs.

“In 2015, it was fentanyl,” Wood said, referring to an extremely potent synthetic opiate that’s easier to overdose on than pure heroin. “Now, they’re cutting their drugs with meth, cocaine, ecstasy.”

There were 13 suicides in the county last year, the highest total yet. That number underscores a growing sense of urgency in combating mental health and substance abuse issues in Summit County.

Two groups, Building Hope Summit County and the Patti Casey Memorial Fund, have partnered to help raise awareness of mental illness and improve the resources available to people affected by it, which can be lacking in rural areas like Summit.

Suicide is a complex cause of death, but according to prevention groups, mental disorders and substance abuse issues have been found in 90 percent of people who die from it. These conditions are treatable, and addressing a substance abuse problem can be an effective way of helping prevent suicide.

Experts recommend seeking immediate help for someone exhibiting possible warning signs, such as abrupt changes in sleeping patterns, mood swings and withdrawal from one’s social life.

The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline can be reached by calling 800-273-TALK (8255) or texting START to 741741 to get immediate help from a crisis counselor.

Local mental health provider Mind Springs health maintains a 24/7 crisis line at 888-207-4004 and a “warm line” for people to talk through their concerns or problems with a trained clinician. That number is 844-493-TALK (8255).

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