AUSTIN (KXAN) — Along Barton Springs Road in south Austin, families, friends and loved ones gathered Sunday morning for a walk to remember those lost to fentanyl poisoning. The gathering came as the United States continues to battle an ongoing fentanyl crisis, with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration declaring Aug. 21 National Fentanyl Prevention and Awareness Day.

“This is a club that no one ever, ever wants to be in,” said Becky Stewart, a Cedar Park mom whose son, Cameron, died in March 2021 from fentanyl poisoning.

It’s a tragedy that has grown across the country, with nearly 108,000 people dying from drug overdoses and poisonings in 2021, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Of those nearly 108,000 deaths nationally, 67% of those involved fentanyl.

Here in Austin-Travis County, local officials have declared fentanyl poisonings and accidental overdoses a crisis. A report from the Travis County Medical Examiner’s Office found 308 people died of accidental drug toxicity in 2021, with 118 of those overdoses involving fentanyl.

That figure had risen from 246 accidental drug toxicity deaths countywide in 2020, 35 of which involved fentanyl.

Parent Leslie Inman said the manners in which people died shouldn’t define or reflect on who they were. She stressed there’s no safe street drug due to the high prevalence of fentanyl-laced pills.

“These people come from every background, every age,” she said. “They could be your daughter, your friend, your neighbor, the person standing next to you. Anybody can die of a drug overdose.”

Earlier this month, KXAN’s Grace Reader spoke with Carilu Bell, an Austin mom who lost her son, Casey Copeland, to fentanyl poisoning. Bell helped organize Sunday’s walk, but said the momentum won’t stop there.

In addition to the walk, Bell and other loved ones are working to take their message nationally, meeting with other victims’ families in Washington, D.C. next month for the second annual Lost Voices of Fentanyl rally.

Families also plan to send a letter to President Joe Biden with the following requests:

  • Acknowledge illicit fentanyl as a national security issue
  • Acknowledge that “transnational cartel criminals are initiating these wrongful fentanyl poisonings”
  • Declare national emergency

“As families, as parents, we’re not able to work at that [federal] level,” Andrea Thomas, the co-founder of Facing Fentanyl, told KXAN earlier this month. “So we are spreading the prevention and awareness. We need the federal government to step up to the plate for the safety of Americans.”