TRAVIS COUNTY (KXAN) — Travis County Judge Andy Brown said he and Travis County commissioners will consider declaring a public health crisis Tuesday 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 that drug overdoses were the leading cause of accidental death in Travis County. Fentanyl was found in more than a third of those cases, a dramatic increase year-over-year.

“One death from this is too much, but this is extraordinary and something that we need to take more seriously at every level of government,” Brown said.

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, the family said.

Pressed pills can be laced with fentanyl, and people may not realize they’re ingesting the potentially deadly substance. Lopez 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. She calls it murder.

Photo of Victoria Trevino
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 Narcan

Brown said he requested roughly $150,000 in funding for naloxone in the county’s fiscal year 2022-23 budget, but he also thinks the county needs to put resources towards naloxone sooner. That’s something that’s likely to come up Tuesday during the weekly Travis County commissioners meeting.

Narcan is a brand name for naloxone, an emergency treatment that reverses the effects of an opioid overdose. Naloxone is widely considered a useful harm reduction tool, alongside tools like drug testing and clean syringes.

“There’s still obviously large parts of the community that don’t have Narcan available when someone overdoses,” Brown said. “The question we’re trying to figure out is, can we just buy a bunch of it and help distribute it to communities that need it or do we need to work with an organization like the Texas Harm Reduction Alliance?”

Brown said they’re looking at ways other governments are distributing Narcan. In some places, Narcan vending machines are even being used.

The Texas Harm Reduction Alliance urged harm reduction strategies as a solution over-focusing on drug enforcement.

“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.

Texas law stands in the way of utilizing some harm reduction tools

One harm reduction strategy that’s being discussed nationwide — and is included in President Biden’s drug control strategy — is fentanyl testing strips. Those are 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 to not 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.

Brown says he’s talked with state legislators about the possibility of bringing the legality of the testing strips forward during the next legislative session.

“I don’t think this is a partisan issue at all, nobody wants to see people dying in their community because of this,” Brown said. “I’ll be reaching out to Democrats and Republicans to see if they would help sponsor this next session in January.”

Lack of treatment options

“We also, this is not going to be news to anyone, do not have enough money in this state going towards rehab programs and if somebody in our community, in Austin, decides that they don’t want to use opioids anymore and they don’t have great insurance and they can’t self pay, there are almost no options for them to get into some program,” Brown said. “If there is an option there’s often a long waitlist.”

Travis County has also tasked Central Health with partnering with groups that can distribute methadone, which helps treat opioid withdrawal symptoms, according to Brown.

Travis County commissioners have put $250,000 towards that recently.

“If people are interested in stopping using opioids and getting using [methadone] and maybe progressing beyond that, I want to support them in doing that,” Brown said. “At the town hall the other night, people were raising the issue that there are long waitlists … that’s not what anybody wants to see.”

Treatment options, and funding for them, will also likely be discussed Tuesday as county commissioners decide whether or not they’re going to move forward with the public health crisis declaration.

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 4-7 p.m.

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

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