Summit County Coroner’s Office sees record number of deaths in 2021

The office handled 97 deaths, 18 of which were related to substance use

A patron sit at a bar on Wednesday, Sept. 1, 2021 in Frisco. Despite bars being closed early on during the coronavirus pandemic, Summit County Coroner Regan Wood said she thinks more individuals began self-medicating.
Jeffrey Wilson/For the Summit Daily News

The Summit County Coroner’s office handled a record-breaking number of cases in 2021, and Summit County Coroner Regan Wood does not like the trajectory as it relates to substance use and alcohol.

Her office investigated 97 deaths in 2021, which is 10 more than the previous record of 87 deaths in 2015. Wood has worked for the office since 2005 and was elected in 2015 as coroner. Her office handles all deaths that occur in the county except for patients who were admitted in St. Anthony Summit Hospital for more than 24 hours.

Of the deaths that occurred last year, Wood said there were nine suicides, 27 accidental deaths and 61 natural deaths. Accidental deaths are often traumatic cases, such as a skier crashing into a tree, motor vehicle deaths, boating accidents and deaths related to substance use and alcohol. Wood said all of these are classified as accidental if there is no evidence the individual is actively trying to die.

It’s these accidental deaths — specifically the 18 deaths related to substance use and alcohol— that she is worried about. Nine of those were drug overdoses and five of those overdoses tested for fentanyl in their system. Wood said the nine alcohol-related deaths, or people who “drank themselves to death,” was also alarming.

Wood said these alcohol-related cases involved people between the ages of 30 and 55, but their autopsies showed similarities of older habitual alcoholics.

“We were autopsying them and one comment that we’ve heard from our forensic pathologist is that their liver and their heart, major organs in their body, looked like that of a 70-year-old chronic alcoholic,” Wood said.

In comparison, there were 17 accidental deaths in 2020, seven of which were related to substance use, including a few overdose cases. There were five alcohol-related cases in 2020.

Wood believes that the pandemic is a large contributing factor for why these kinds of deaths are on the rise in the county.

“Over the pandemic, people were self-medicating, a lot of people were isolated,” Wood said. “Many of these substance use deaths have a mental health component with them. These people were not seeking any services during the last few years and that just took a harder toll on their body.”

Wood said one of the reasons she’s so concerned is because cases sometimes test positive for multiple drugs. She noted that the mixing of alcohol and multiple drugs together is becoming more common, especially among young individuals.

Another issue Wood is seeing is that drugs are often laced or cut with some sort of dangerous ingredient like the narcotic fentanyl. County coroner offices try to keep up with new tests that can identify these substances, but it’s difficult when people making the drugs are coming up with ways to prohibit detection.

Wood said the same situation can happen with the fentanyl test strips that Summit County Sheriff Jaime FitzSimons has previously expressed interest in. Once these test strips are made, they might become obsolete in the long term.

“The drug … makers are getting wind of it and then they are altering the substances at a microscopic level so that it’s not caught on toxicology tests so there’s no evidence of it,” Wood said.

Wood said she had a case where an individual died after supposedly testing his substances for lethal ingredients, yet the results allegedly led them to believe the substances was nonlethal.

“Anything that’s going to keep you from dying is a good idea and a preventative tool, however the accuracy of the test kit is always in question,” Wood said. “There’s just not enough known about them.”

FitzSimons said he’s currently exploring whether a program with the state would be feasible. Most of the involvement his department has with drugs and alcohol is through offenses such as driving while intoxicated and driving under the influence. His department used to have a drug task force and a K-9 unit to help with the presence of substances in the community, but both have since ended.

Still, he said he’s “very aware” of the issue and receives information on confiscated drugs in the counties bordering Summit. Through this, he can get somewhat of a picture of what’s happening locally.

“I’m basing this off data that I’m collecting of interdictions and seizures that are happening all around us,” FitzSimons said. “If you think of the four borders of the county — we have Park, Grand, Clear Creek and Eagle — I look at the seizures that are the result of active narcotic interdiction in those four ports, and you can start to picture and see what must be going through Summit County.”

Above all, both FitzSimons and Wood cautioned community members about the substances circulating through the county.

“Be careful,” FitzSimons said. “The drugs you’re buying are probably not the drugs you think they are. Almost everything illicit on the street today is laced with fentanyl.”


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