AUSTIN (KXAN) — More than 240 people died from overdose-related deaths in Travis County during 2020, county leaders announced Thursday, with deaths spiking by more than 30% from the year prior.

Data from the Travis County Medical Examiner’s 2020 annual report revealed 246 people died due to drug toxicity last year. This figure does not include overdoses affiliated with cases where a person died by suicide.

The countywide increase comes as national trends also report significant increases in overdose-related deaths during the coronavirus pandemic. Nationally, over 100,000 estimated drug overdose deaths were reported in a 12-month period, ending in April 2021, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

On Thursday, District Attorney José Garza referred to the uptick as “a growing crisis” in the Central Texas community. He said advancements in training services, investment in harm reduction strategies and an emphasis on nonpunitive responses are needed to best address rising addiction levels.

“We’re going to have to evaluate our own policies and, potentially, our laws,” he said. “We cannot arrest and prosecute our way out of this crisis. If we are serious about reducing overdose-related deaths in our community, we must begin to treat substance use disorder like the public health crisis that it is.”

Garza noted initiatives outlined in the county’s harm reduction strategy report, which includes response methods such as:

  • Partnering with local health, community leaders on dangers of substance use disorder and treatment options
  • Expanding on local training, support strategies such as increasing availability of life-saving medicines and working with residents and local leaders on overdose prevention and life-saving medicine distributions
  • Advocating for changes in the law to allow for fentanyl test strips; expanded funding for local treatment resources; and pursuing non-punitive response solutions

Selena Xie, president of the Austin-Travis County Emergency Medical Services Association, said department responses to overdoses doubled during the pandemic. She attributed stress factors related to the coronavirus pandemic and subsequent impacts on mental health as key contributors.

Cate Graziani, co-executive director of the Texas Harm Reduction Alliance, called for increased access to and training of Narcan use to help revive people who’ve overdosed on drugs. She also advocated for the legalization of fentanyl testing strips to help detect potential lacings of the lethal synthetic opioid.

In Texas, she said leaders need to prioritize expanding harm reduction resources to help treat and assist in recovery efforts for those struggling with addiction. Within Travis County, she said too many people are on a waiting list for methadone treatments but cannot afford the costs or time necessary when waiting on a limited supply.

“A public health approach to drug use is going to be much more effective than a punitive one,” she said, adding, “investments in methadone are effective and will save lives.”

Also on Thursday, officials from Dell Medical School and the University of Texas at Austin’s Steve Hicks School of Social Work announced a digital platform in the works to track opioid and other drug overdoses statewide. Named Project CONNECT, researchers are working to pair the surveillance data with policy initiatives to help reduce drug addictions.

Kasey Claborn, the lead researcher on the project, said anecdotal estimates approximate between 50%-90% of Texas overdoses go unreported. She added the pilot program will include statewide data on both fatal and nonfatal overdoses.

Project researchers conducted a four-month pilot program in Travis, Williamson, El Paso and Bexar counties alongside local harm reduction groups before a statewide launch, planned for early 2022.

“This robust tracking system is designed to gather key metrics about overdose trends across the state and deliver that info to people who can put it to use, including those who direct funding and allocation of resources,” Andrea Daugherty, interim chief information officer at Dell Medical School, said in a release.