Summit County deaths declined by nearly 25 percent in 2017 with drop in overdoses, road deaths and suicides
Summit County deaths dropped by nearly 25 percent in 2017 compared to the previous year, a sharp reduction stemming from fewer traffic fatalities, accidental overdoses and suicides, according to an annual report published by the Summit County Coroner’s Office last week.
There were a total of 63 deaths in Summit County last year, the lowest total in three years. The coroner’s office recorded 82 deaths in 2016 and a record-setting 87 deaths in 2015. Sixty people died in Summit in 2014.
Officials were surprised by the reversal of that trend, especially in light of record-setting visitor numbers last year, a strong economy and an uptick in crime numbers. Heart attacks and other cardiac ailments, however, continue to be the leading cause of death in Summit, and many of them were once again attributed to the effects of altitude on visitors from the low country.
“The county is so busy I figured we would see an increase like we have the last two years, but like everything else it can just fluctuate from year to year,” Summit County Coroner Regan Wood said. “The suicides are down, the accidental overdoses are down and motor vehicle crashes are significantly down. Other than that, it’s pretty much status quo.”
There were 45 natural deaths in Summit in 2017, only one fewer than 2016, but there were eight fewer suicides and nine fewer accidental deaths, which include unintentional overdoses, traffic fatalities and skiing deaths.
Suicide deaths in Summit reached their highest level on record in 2016, prompting a major mental wellness push by local officials and advocacy groups like Building Hope Summit County, which has been working to improve access to care and encourage more open discussion about mental illness.
While those groups have been reluctant to take too much credit or declare victory, they have expressed guarded optimism that their efforts are bearing fruit.
“I would like to think that the community-wide mental health campaign that has been going on with Building Hope and all of the other organizations in the community raised awareness around the suicide issue and gave more opportunities for people to reach out and get help,” Wood said. “Hopefully that led to the lower suicide numbers.”
Accidental overdoses declined for the third year in a row, with one caused by heroin and the other by alcohol. There were four overdoses in 2016 and seven in 2015, many of them caused by laced drugs and fentanyl, an extremely potent opioid.
The District Attorney’s Office has aggressively pursued suspects tied to fentanyl deaths, with mixed results. Last year, two Summit County men, William Lancaster and Christopher Malcolm, received multi-year sentences for their roles in unrelated overdose deaths.
Lancaster was acquitted of manslaughter charges at trial but convicted of lesser drug charges and later sentenced to two years community corrections. After the not guilty verdict, the DA’s Office dropped manslaughter charges against co-defendant Brandon Johnson, but a jury in Denver convicted him of class-three felony drug distribution in January. He faces up to six years in prison at sentencing.
Wood said that heightened attention around the extreme dangers of fentanyl in the past several years and publicity around those criminal cases may have helped steer people away from the drug.
Heightened awareness about steadily climbing traffic fatalities may have also contributed to the dip in Summit County, although the numbers are too small to draw any definitive conclusions.
“I don’t know if it’s just increased public awareness around these issues or not,” Wood said. “There were a lot of articles in the paper and everywhere else when the fentanyl was going around, and then the motor vehicle crashes were pretty high-profile the year before. Maybe people are just being a little more cautious because of that.”
Statewide fatal crashes have increased by roughly 30 percent since 2014, according to the Colorado Department of Transportation, but Summit County bucked that trend last year, with four people dying in car crashes compared to eight in 2016.
There was, however, one pedestrian death in Summit last year. Jamison Ford, 27, was trying to cross Blue River Parkway in Silverthorne on Sept. 2 when he was struck by a car. He suffered a traumatic brain injury and died in the hospital a week later, the coroner’s office said.
Silverthorne police said the car was travelling at the posted speed limited of 35 mph. The driver was not charged with a crime.
Cardiac deaths were the only category to increase between 2016 and 2017, rising from 23 to 28. As in years past, the stress of high elevation on vulnerable hearts was a major factor, and half of last year’s cardiac cases occurred in people visiting from lower elevations.
“People usually travel up here and then within the first 24 to 48 hours of getting here, they’re not feeling so good, get shortness of breath, headaches, fatigue,” Wood said. “Most of them back out of whatever activity they were going to be doing, take it easy that day, and at some point have a cardiac event. It happens pretty quickly being up at this altitude.”
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