One pill can kill: Community groups fight fentanyl deaths with harm-reduction kits
Routt County parents Bryan and Karen Bomberg are open about the cause of death of their adult son in November because they hope other parents will not have to experience that grief.
Bryan, who describes the immediate grief as an almost coma-like state, says the couple does not want any other parent to have to check on their son, who did not wake up for his shift, to find he would never wake up, again.
“If an ounce of good can come from any of this, then that’s what we would hope,” said Bryan Bomberg, whose family has lived in Routt County for 29 years.
Conner Bomberg died Nov. 27 from a suspected overdose of fentanyl — or a fentanyl-laced pill — that his dad said was purchased in Steamboat Springs. He was 28 years old.
Conner was in recovery from substance use disorder and was doing well after completing a stay in August at a center on the Front Range, his dad said. Conner was born and grew up in Steamboat. He attended Yampa Valley High School and was enjoying participating in local clean and sober community events.
He was adventurous and loved snowboarding, snowmobiling and riding dirt bikes. He was an alumnus of NOLS wilderness leadership program in Wyoming and was a culinary student working on his associate’s degree at Colorado Mountain College in Steamboat.
Conner dealt with plenty of injuries from falls, but the circulation of deadly fake pills in the community ended a lifetime that was a journey of ups and downs, his mom said. Karen Bomberg said she wants to urge others in recovery: “Don’t give up your hope. Your efforts of sobriety are not worthless.”
Routt County Sheriff’s Office Patrol Lt. Ryan Adrian said the investigation into who sold the suspected fentanyl to Conner remains an active case through the sheriff’s office with assistance from the All Crimes Enforcement Team in Routt and Moffat counties.
Adrian said one illegal product often found locally is counterfeit oxycodone M30 pills, nicknamed “blues,” “blue oxys” or “the little blue pills,” and they look similar to the real drug.
“These pills are definitely circulating in our community, and it’s important to get the word out to prevent more deaths,” Adrian said.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, fentanyl is a synthetic opioid used for treating severe pain, such as during advanced cancer. Additionally, fentanyl is 50-100 times more potent than morphine. Illegally made fentanyl is sold through illicit drug markets for its heroin-like effect.
Steamboat resident Lindsey Simbeye, external relations strategist for the Colorado Consortium for Prescription Drug Abuse Prevention, said illegal fentanyl and other pills mixed with fentanyl have been a growing problem in the Yampa Valley over the past two years.
The community is seeing increases in counterfeit pressed pills made to look like real prescriptions with little indication for users to know the true contents. Fentanyl is cheap and easy to synthesize and may be mixed in what people think is a painkiller pill. The illegal drugs largely are coming into the Yampa Valley via Denver or Grand Junction, local experts say.
“Some people are seeking that increased potency (of fentanyl), while others are unaware of fentanyl being in counterfeit pills they are purchasing, or they may be unaware they are counterfeits. It’s almost like Russian roulette,” Simbeye said.
From 2017-2020, nine residents of Routt County died from an opioid drug overdose, and 20 people visited the emergency department during that time from opioid overdoses, Simbeye said.
The deaths represent only the tip of the iceberg.
According to a Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration study in 2015, one overdose death indicates there are 62 more people battling a prescription opioid substance use disorder, 377 people misusing prescription opioids and 2,964 people who use prescription opioids, Simbeye said.
“Those numbers only reflect those battling opioid use disorder, not the countless family and friends who are also in the trenches alongside their loved ones, helping them to navigate a path forward to keep them alive and help them find treatment,” Simbeye said.
Across Colorado, overdose deaths continue to rise with 974 in 2018, 1,062 in 2019 and 1,477 in 2020, Simbeye said. Experts estimate that number from 2021 could be more than 1,800 statewide.
To try to help educate and reduce deaths from fentanyl-laced pills, representatives from 10 agencies already involved in regional substance abuse issues formed a Harm Reduction Task Force last fall. Chris Williams, project coordinator for the Rural Response to the Opioid Epidemic, helped pull together the task force, which includes human service, health care, law enforcement and substance abuse agencies.
Williams said grant funding in summer 2021 allowed the group to add fentanyl test strips to the free kits, which are available with no questions asked throughout the five-county region of Routt, Moffat, Rio Blanco, Grand and Jackson counties.
Harm-reduction kits can be obtained through regional first responder departments and in the Yampa Valley at the Health Partnership, Northwest Colorado Health, Mind Springs Health, Front Range Clinic, Memorial Regional Health, Providence Recovery and Moffat County Public Health. The kits will be available at Bud Werner Memorial Library starting in February.
Williams said community members and parents should be aware that the illegal pills can be found fairly easily in the Yampa Valley.
“These are not just big-city problems,” Williams said. “(The fake pills) have made their way here. People need to talk about this.”
In Colorado, fentanyl also can be found cut into counterfeit Adderall, Xanax or other illegal drugs, Simbeye warned.
Still coping with their grief, the Bomberg family is creating a memorial fund through the Yampa Valley Community Foundation to honor Conner and to try to help others through the difficult struggle of remaining clean and sober. They hope to establish a clean and sober recreation facility in Routt County and are searching for an appropriate commercial space.
Due to a recent increase in overdose deaths in the area, community partners are rallying together to help save lives by sharing information about harm reduction resources. Harm reduction is a set of practical strategies aimed at reducing negative consequences of drug use to keep people alive until they are ready to receive the help they need to overcome substance use disorder.
• Never use alone.
• Obtain a free harm reduction kit that includes fentanyl test strips and Narcan medication to reverse an overdose.
• Test before you use.
• Know what a drug overdose looks like.
• If someone is experiencing an overdose, call 911. Good Samaritan laws in Colorado protect from prosecution those who report emergencies to first responders even if the reporter is also using illegal drugs.
• If you do use alone, consider first calling the NeverUseAlone hotline at 800-484-3731, or visit NeverUseAlone.com. The hotline provides a life-saving point of contact for people who use drugs to help increase their odds of surviving an overdose or fentanyl poisoning.
To reach Suzie Romig, call 970-871-4205 or email sromig@SteamboatPilot.com.
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