El Paso County Coroner’s Office Releases 2019 Annual Report

El Paso County, CO – Today Dr. Leon Kelly, El Paso County Coroner, presented the Coroner’s Office 2019 Annual Report to the El Paso County Board of Commissioners.

With four board-certified forensic pathologists, nine death investigators, four toxicologists, one histologist, five morgue technicians and two administrative staff, the Coroner’s Office serves El Paso County by investigating all sudden, unexpected, and non-natural deaths. Approximately one quarter of deaths that occur in El Paso County require further investigation to determine cause and manner of death and ensure public health and safety.

The Coroner’s Office plays a vital role in protecting our residents; by understanding what is affecting and ultimately killing people in our community, that is the first step toward identifying solutions to prevent these deaths.

“I took over the annual report several years ago, transitioning it from an internal document to an outward-facing document that would allow our public health officials, elected officials, law enforcement, community and media to have information that highlights actionable items, taking the vital signs of our community as we look toward where we want to spend resources, time and energy,” said Dr. Leon Kelly, El Paso County Coroner.

Key takeaways from the 2019 report include:

  • 4,816 total deaths investigated
  • 1,191 total autopsies performed
    • 816 autopsies on El Paso County deaths
    • 375 autopsies for 20 surrounding counties

Top themes from the 2019 report include:

  • Fentanyl continues to be a top issue
    • The total number of drug-related deaths remained relatively steady from 2018 (133) due to decreases in heroin deaths (47 in 2018) being offset by an increase in fentanyl-related deaths (9 in 2018)
  • There was in increase in suicides predominately in our adult population (180 in 2019) compared to 152 in 2018 
    • These suicides were largely completed through firearms
  • There was a sharp decrease in homicides in 2019 (35 total), compared to 56 in 2018 
    • Of note, there were six officer-involved shootings
  • In 2019, 56 total individuals died unexpectedly while struggling with homelessness. This marks a decrease from 61 deaths in 2018 
  • In an encouraging trend, teen suicides stayed relatively stable, with 9 suicides completed in 2019, compared to 7 suicides in 2018

To combat the issues of mental health, suicide and substance use in El Paso County, there are a myriad of ongoing community efforts and initiatives designed to address these issues head on. Using data and trends to drive the work, the Coroner’s Office, Public Health, and many other partners work closely together to create innovative and evidence-based solutions to our community’s most pressing topics. 

In 2019, the partnership between Public Health, the El Paso County Sheriff’s Office, UCHealth and the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) continued to maintain and expand the Behavioral Health Connect Unit (BHCON). The co-responder model, launched in 2018, uses an approach that pairs law enforcement with licensed behavioral health clinicians for a coordinated response to emergency calls that are mental health related. This grant-funded program has not only been effective in providing timely connection to mental health care and resources, it has also created a unique climate of collaboration between diverse community partners. 

As part of community-wide efforts to address behavioral health and substance abuse needs in our community, in 2019 Public Health began engaging with key stakeholders to address the behavioral health continuum of care, identify gaps, and assess community needs and readiness. In fall 2019, Public Health received a one-time, additional $195,000 to its core funding from the state health department to specifically address opioid and other substance misuse issues. 

The Youth Suicide Prevention Workgroup, convened by Public Health, continues to work diligently to address youth suicide in our community. The Workgroup now has over 90 community partners working toward building a comprehensive community-driven solution to prevent youth suicide. Additionally, as part of sustained efforts to enhance youth suicide prevention resources in our community, Public Health continued to partner with NAMI to help expand the “Below the Surface” crisis text line awareness campaign to more than 60 local schools. This campaign aims to increase help-seeking behavior among youth by encouraging the use of Colorado’s Crisis Text Line. Increasing the utilization of this resource is crucial for our community because it means more young people are reaching out and receiving the support they need.

Michelle Hewitt
Public Health Information Officer
(719) 578-3239
El Paso County, CO