Texas county could declare a public health crisis to target drug overdose deaths

TRAVIS COUNTY (KXAN) — Travis County Judge Andy Brown said he is considering declaring a public health crisis in response to the growing number of people who have died from drug overdoses. It comes on the heels of the Travis County Medical Examiner’s 2021 report.

That report showed for the first time in a decade, drug overdoses were the leading cause of accidental death in Travis County. Fentanyl was found in more than a third of those cases.

For the first time in a decade, drug ODs were leading causes of accidental deaths

“Drug overdoses are a crisis in our community and fentanyl is exacerbating the problem,” Brown said in a press release. “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 life-saving, harm-reduction strategies to those who overdose on drugs.”

For JoAnn Lopez, the Travis County grandmother of a young victim of fentanyl, the effort would be “a step in the right direction.”

Lopez’ granddaughter, Victoria Trevino, died after being given a pill that was laced with fentanyl in September, her family said.

Pressed pills can be laced with fentanyl, and people may not realize they’re ingesting the potentially deadly substance. Trevino’s grandmother says she doesn’t call Trevino’s death an overdose because she doesn’t believe her granddaughter knew there was fentanyl in the drugs she took.

Photo of Victoria Trevino, who died after taking a pill laced with fentanyl (KXAN photo/Grace Reader)

This family’s story is unfortunately one that a growing number of people in Central Texas and around the country are experiencing as well. That was also the case for a family in Cedar Park as well as a Texas Longhorn linebacker last year.

That’s why Lopez said this effort to inform people of the crisis is “a start.”

Funding for harm reduction tools

Brown also said he requested funding for naloxone in the county’s fiscal year 2022-23 budget. Narcan is a brand name for naloxone and is an emergency treatment that reverses the effects of an opioid overdose. He continued to push for harm reduction tools to be more readily available.

Fentanyl tests are illegal in Texas, this group is sending them anyways

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

The Texas Harm Reduction Alliance also urged harm reduction strategies as a solution.

“Right now, leaders must resist doubling down on harsh penalties for fentanyl-related substances and instead, use proven harm reduction strategies,” said Cate Graciani, Executive Director of the Texas Harm Reduction Alliance. She pointed to New York and the opening of overdose prevention centers, which Graciani says have reversed almost 300 overdoses since late last year.

One of those harm reduction strategies, testing strips, is still illegal in Texas.

Fentanyl testing strips can be used to test drugs, powders and pills for the presence of fentanyl, which is often more potent than other drugs and can be fatal. The strips allow people to take extra steps to protect themselves or not to take the drugs altogether.

But under the Texas Controlled Substances Act, drug testing equipment is classified as drug paraphernalia, which makes it illegal for people to recreationally test. Some groups are still shipping the tests to Texas, regardless of the law.

Town hall promptly push for overdose action plan

“It’s something that from what I’ve heard, especially from the harm reduction community, that would save lives,” Brown told KXAN previously. “Absolutely we would like to look into the possibility of making them available to the public if they were allowed by state law.”

Rally for change happening next month

The uptick in the number of overdose deaths is one of the main reasons the Association for People Against Lethal Drugs is hosting a nationwide rally on June 3rd. There will be one happening at the governor’s mansion in Austin between 4pm-7p.m.

The goal of the rally is to raise awareness and to advocate for legislative changes.

You can find more information about the event on the APALD website.

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