EL PASO COUNTY — Each year, the El Paso County Coroner’s Office releases a report that details the total number of death investigations and autopsies performed as well as a categorized breakdown on the causes of death within the county.
According to the department, deaths are investigated if they are “sudden, unexpected, [or] non-natural.”
We don’t do any autopsies to help the person that has died, they are deceased and no longer with us. The whole goal of an autopsy is to learn about the death, figure out what happened and be better equipped in the future to prevent similar deaths.
Findings from the 2020 El Paso County coroner's report indicate that, over the course of the past year, the number of suicides has stayed relatively level, while homicides, fatal vehicle/pedestrian accidents, and drug related deaths have spiked drastically compared to 2019.
According to Dr. Leon Kelly, the El Paso County Coroner, one of the key things to take away from the 2020 report is this overwhelming increase in accidental drug related deaths. Fentanyl usage as well as heroine, methamphetamine, and cocaine usage has skyrocketed over the past year.
It is also important to note that the coroner's office only performed 13 autopsies on individuals later determined to have COVID-19. The office reports that the vast majority of COVID-19 death investigations and/or tallies are taken care of in hospitals.
"You've got to remember that our office plays a very little roll in the investigation of COVID related deaths, the vast majority of these people die in hospital, in long term care facilities, under the care of a physician," stated Dr. Kelly.
In total, the county investigated 6,037 cases and performed 1,293 autopsies, a nine percent increase over 2019 and the most reported cases on record. Inside that number are the 920 autopsies performed on El Paso County deaths as well as the 373 autopsies conducted for 22 other surrounding counties.
Of the autopsies performed in 2020 for El Paso County, the causes of death broke down as follows:
- Natural: 33.6%
- Accidental: 38.7%
- Suicide: 19.3%
- Homicide: 6.1%
The remaining 2.3% falling under the classification of undetermined or unclassified.
As seen above, the largest category is the listing of accidental deaths. The main contributors in this category are:
- Drug overdoses: 186 deaths
- Deadly accidents involving motor vehicles: 94
- Fatal falls: 32 deaths
The number of drug-related deaths increased by 56 over the recorded 130 during 2019.
Of the 186 recorded drug-related deaths in 2019, 108 lost their lives in accidents involving opioids. This is a marked increase over 2019 when 71 people died from opioid usage.
The primary drugs found in accidental fatal overdoses are as follows:
- Methamphetamine: 91
- Heroin: 43
- Fentanyl: 47
- Cocaine: 30
- Assorted RX opiates: 11
Perhaps some good news to come from this report, and reports from previous years, is the steady decrease in fatal overdoses involving prescription opioids:
- 2016: 77
- 2017: 35
- 2018: 21
- 2019: 19
- 2020: 11
However, according to the El Paso County Coroner, the decrease in accidental prescription opioid-related deaths has continued to be accompanied by an increase in fatal overdoses using other illicit drugs.
Additionally, the following statistics were compiled as a result of the study:
- 67% of accidental drug deaths were male
- 66% of decedents had a prior history of substance abuse or addiction
- 20% had a known history of mental illness
- 8% of medication used in overdoses was prescribed by the decedent’s physician
Moving away from drug-related fatalities, the annual report indicates that 78 El Paso County residents lost their lives in deadly motor vehicle accidents. Additionally, another 13 residents lost their lives as a result of motor vehicle accidents due to injuries incurred as a pedestrian and another three died in injuries sustained during collisions between motor vehicles and their bicycles.
In all of the motor vehicle cases, the data indicates, again, the use of a seat belt was a life-saving factor:
- 41% (20) of decedents used seat belts
- 55% (27) of decedents did not use seat belts
The report further details that in 44 (67%) of these cases, the accident was caused by operator error.
In 32 of these “driver-at-fault” incidences, the person behind the wheel was found to have drugs, alcohol, and/or THC in their system at the time of the autopsy.
The office determined that in 62% of the cases which resulted in pedestrian deaths, the pedestrian was found to be in error.
Again, the primary and ongoing goal for the coroner’s office is to better understand and further break down the factors that cause the loss of life in the county; to that end, the department compiled a list of factors that contributed to deaths in the homeless community of El Paso County.
For the purposes of this study, the coroner’s office defined homelessness as anyone who is:
- Sleeping on the streets
- Sleeping in a tent, vehicle, or shelter
- Couch surfing or squatting
- Currently going through a transitional housing program
- Living in a temporary residence or motel
With these parameters in place, the county determined 79 people experiencing homelessness inside El Paso County died during 2020.
These deaths broke down in the following manner:
- 51% (40) were accidental
- 25% (20) were natural
- 6% (5) were homicides
- 14% (11) were suicides
- 4% (3) were undetermined
The vast majority of the deaths in the county’s homeless population were accidental and fall primarily into three categories:
- Drug intoxication (65%)
- Fatal pedestrian injuries (12%)
- Carbon monoxide/Fire (10%)
Homicides are another area of interest to the El Paso County Coroner’s Office. Over the past several years, the number of deaths in this category has stayed about the same with a sharp increase recorded during 2018, a five year low recorded in 2019, and another spike during 2020.
- 2015: 41
- 2016: 38
- 2017: 42
- 2018: 56
- 2019: 35
- 2020: 55
Firearms were used in 34 (62%) of all homicides during 2020.
Further research into fatal firearm usage over the course of 2020 revealed the following:
- 73% (97) of all fatal encounters were attributed to suicide
- 26% (34) of all fatal encounters were attributed to homicide
- 1% (2) of all fatal encounters were attributed to accidents
Suicides overall stayed relatively level from a total of 180 in 2019 to 178 this past year; however there was a large increase in the amount of suicides among youth.
According to a press release from the coroner's office, "Suicides among youth between the ages of 11-17 increased significantly (nine in 2019 compared to 15 in 2020)."
The El Paso County Coroner's Office and the El Paso County Public Health District report working closely together in order to look at key issues facing county residents and identify "upstream solutions and community-driven strategies" to create the biggest and best possible impact.
If you or someone you know is struggling with depression or thoughts of self-harm, don’t be silent. There are people ready and waiting to help.
Last but not least, the report also states that organs were donated from 29 El Paso County donors.
These donations resulted in 77 organ transplants, saving the lives of others.