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Travis County declares public health crisis as drug overdoses skyrocket in Austin

Drug overdose is now the No. 1 cause of accidental deaths in the county.

AUSTIN, Texas — As drug overdoses have spiked in Austin and Travis County, the County has declared a public health crisis.

The county judge previously said he was considering declaring a public health crisis in response to an increase in deaths from overdoses. The Travis County Commissioners Court put the declaration on the agenda but didn't vote on it at their meeting on May 17. They said they needed more information from experts to help them strategize on the next steps.

On May 24, the County officially issued a declaration, which will expand Narcan access and fund $350,000 for harm reduction supplies. The County said the declaration will also ensure safe syringe disposal throughout the County. A monthly agenda item for the Commissioner Court will be created to discuss urgent needs with community members, for the duration of the disaster resolution.

“As overdose deaths continue to surge, we need to meet this crisis by putting resources into communities most at risk. That’s exactly what this declaration does,” said Paulette Soltani, director of Organizing at Texas Harm Reduction Alliance. “We want to thank Judge Brown, Commissioner Gomez and the Commissioners Court for taking action. These funds will go towards building the critical harm reduction infrastructure we so badly need and will give our communities on the ground a voice.”

"It's time Travis County put failed Drug War policies in the past," said Amanda Woog, executive director of Texas Fair Defense Project. "As overdose deaths surge in our community, we need to invest in strategies proven to save lives. We're grateful to the leadership of people who use drugs in this fight, and to the Commissioners Court for taking action with today's declaration."

The commissioners said at the earlier meeting that people need help and resources as soon as possible.

"Our first responders are dealing with this," one commissioner said. "We heard almost weeping officers a couple of weeks ago about their clients they're concerned about on the street. And they're finding them dead. And so this is a real-life, right-now problem."

The court considered advice and suggestions from Integral Care and health leaders on the next steps to protect the community from more overdoses. 

The conversation started on May 11, when the Travis County judge cited a Travis County Medical Examiner's Office report in a press release. It detailed the numbers and types of deaths the medical examiner's office investigated in 2021. 

According to the report, drug overdoses are the No. 1 cause of accidental deaths in the county. Looking at accidental deaths in the county, drug overdose deaths surpassed those who fall and die in car crashes.

Fentanyl-related deaths are of particular concern. The report says deaths from fentanyl overdoses rose 237% from 2020 to 2021. Fentanyl accounts for more than one-third of all drug overdose deaths. Three years ago, there were nine deaths from fentanyl. In 2021, there were 118 overdose deaths from fentanyl.

“Drug overdoses are a crisis in our community and fentanyl is exacerbating the problem. In Travis County, we believe that all people should have access to the mental, behavioral and substance use treatments that can save lives. Our community has asked for help in employing lifesaving, harm-reduction strategies to those who overdose on drugs,” said Travis County Judge Andy Brown.

The judge also noted that changes should be made in order to alleviate the problem that significantly affects the most vulnerable population. He is requesting funding for naloxone in the 2023 fiscal budget. According to the CDC, naloxone is typically a nasal spray that can reverse an overdose from opioids, including heroin, fentanyl and prescription opioid medications. 

"We will do all we can to address this crisis and call on other leaders to do the same," he said. "Texas should legalize fentanyl test strips, naloxone should be available throughout the community, and recovery programs should be fully funded to eliminate waitlists.”

As drug-related overdoses and deaths are on the rise across the country and Austin, the KVUE Defenders dived into the skyrocketing rate of overdoses in children

Judge Brown believes declaring the crisis will raise awareness of the alarming trend.

"Being in the frontlines, its been tearing the communities for years," said Dan McMahon, client service manager at Infinite Recovery.

McMahon said he overdosed several times in the past and now helps people recover. He said we do have a health crisis in Travis County and added that the key is getting people the help they need.

"Let them know there is a way out, sell them the ideas they can be happy one day, and establish purpose in their life," said McMahon.

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