(Sue Ogrocki, Associated Press file)

Drug overdose deaths surged in first nine months of 2016

About six in 10 drug overdose deaths are caused by opioids

Deaths from drug overdoses rose sharply in the first nine months of 2016, the government reported Tuesday, releasing data that confirm the widely held belief that the opioid epidemic worsened last year despite stepped-up efforts by public health authorities.

The National Center for Health Statistics reported that overdose deaths reached a record 19.9 per 100,000 population in the third quarter, a big increase over the 16.7 recorded for the same three months in 2015. Similarly, the first two quarters of last year showed death rates of 18.9 and 19.3, far greater than the corresponding periods for 2015. Data for the fourth quarter of 2016 are not yet available.

The government’s annual drug death statistics typically lag by about a year; the latest official information from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows the 2015 drug overdose rate at 16.3 per 100,000 people, for a total of 52,404 fatal overdoses. Given available state data and anecdotal information, many experts are expecting a big increase in deaths in 2016, driven by the worsening crisis in overdoses from opioids, especially fentanyl and heroin. About six in 10 drug overdose deaths are caused by opioids.

In June, the New York Times predicted that the number of overdose deaths would exceed 60,000 in 2016, based on data it compiled from hundreds of state health departments and county coroners and medical examiners. If true, that number would mark the sharpest annual increase ever recorded. The death rate released by the National Center for Health Statistics for the 12 months ending last September would equate to 59,520 deaths.

In Colorado, the age-adjusted drug overdose death rate for all of 2016 was 16.1 deaths per 100,000 population, according to figures from the state Department of Public Health and Environment.

That is the highest the rate has been since at least 1999.

The figure includes drug poisonings that were classified as both unintentional and as the result of suicide, although the former makes up the vast majority of the deaths.

Overdoses from prescription opioids in Colorado fell by about 9 percent in 2016, compared with 2015, from 329 deaths to 300, according to final numbers from the state. But heroin deaths rose sharply — more than 42 percent — from 160 deaths in 2015 to 228 deaths in 2016.

That is an even bigger increase than what preliminary numbers showed five months ago. State health officials said the two trends could be the result of a crackdown on opioid prescribing in Colorado coupled with people who are addicted to the painkillers switching to heroin.

For all of 2016, the death rate specifically from prescription opioid overdoses in Colorado was 5.3 out of 100,000 population, the lowest it has been since 2010. The death rate from heroin overdoses, though, was 4.1 per 100,000, substantially higher than it has been in any year in over a decade. In 1999, for instance, the heroin overdose death rate in Colorado was 0.9 deaths per 100,000 population.

The raw numbers from the state Health Department feed into the bigger report from the National Center for Health Statistics, which usually lags behind Colorado in releasing data. But Colorado health officials use population estimates from the state Department of Local Affairs — not the federal census, as the NCHS report does — which can lead to slight variations in the calculated death rates.

The national drug overdose numbers are part of a report that looked at mortality rates from leading causes of death. The data show that the overall U.S. death rate fell slightly in 2016, with top killers such as heart disease and cancer remaining stable. The estimates in the report are adjusted for age and considered “provisional,” so they may change slightly as states continue investigating the causes of a small number of cases.

In a separate study released Monday, a University of Virginia professor of public policy and economics suggested that opioid death rates for 2014 may be as much as 24 percent greater than previously reported totals.

The latest government numbers back up the dire accounts of mayors, governors, first responders and coroners who are grappling with the unabated crisis of overdose and addiction in communities across America. The report “is showing the trend that we’re seeing around the country from various data sources,” said Farida Ahmad, who wrote the federal report. “The data doesn’t show any declines at this point.”

The increases come despite more determined efforts by government and private authorities to intervene in the epidemic, which claims an average 142 deaths daily. Last month, the President’s Commission on Combating Drug Addiction and the Opioid Crisis urged the White House to declare a national emergency. The CDC, Food and Drug Administration, and Congress have all taken steps to address the crisis, as have physician groups and private insurance companies. Many communities have made the overdose antidote naloxone widely available, and others are trying to provide more treatment for the estimated 2.6 million opioid addicts in the United States.

But little appears to be working. At this point, death rates for people between the ages of 25 and 44 have risen for virtually every racial and ethnic group and in almost all states, according to a Washington Post analysis.

— Denver Post staff writer John Ingold contributed to this report.