TRAVIS COUNTY, Texas (KXAN) — Fentanyl-involved accidental overdoses more than doubled between 2021 and 2022, as Travis County leaders detail an ongoing public health crisis.

The 2022 annual report from the Travis County Medical Examiner’s Office confirmed there were 417 accidental overdose fatalities countywide in 2022, with 245 of those linked to fentanyl. By comparison, 308 total people died from fatal accidental overdoses in 2021, with 118 of those involving fentanyl.

“The problem has grown significantly worse,” Travis County Judge Andy Brown said during a press conference Wednesday morning.

As Travis County nears its fiscal year 2023-24 budget approval, Brown said he will be asking county commissioners for $750,000 next fiscal year to support an overdose fund. He said the necessity to build a more robust response network and expand its critical infrastructure and support for community partners is critical.

At the state level, Brown called on politicians to approve a number of initiatives making their way through the Texas Legislature. Those endeavors include:

  • Proposed expanded funding for more mental health resources
  • Proposed reimbursement to counties housing individuals waiting for a state hospital bed
  • Proposed legalization of fentanyl testing strips

“We can’t let politics get in the way of saving lives,” he said.

And the number of lives impacted by fatal fentanyl-related overdoses come from all backgrounds, Brown added. Data from the medical examiner’s office have highlighted staggering increases in the number of women, Black and Hispanic people dying due to fentanyl.

Travis County Medical Examiner J. Keith Pinckard also confirmed the number of young adults under the age of 20 dying from fentanyl-involved deaths increased to 12 people last year.

Travis County Sheriff Sally Hernandez said her office is working with mental health professionals and specialists to address county schools on the growing number of youth overdoses. She added the Travis County Sheriff’s Office is also looking into a number of active investigations involving fentanyl-related overdoses.

But punitive responses can’t be a primary response, said Cate Graziani, executive director of the Texas Harm Reduction Alliance. She said she was furious and devastated by data revealed in Wednesday’s report.

She said culturally responsive and age-appropriate harm reduction resources can and will save lives, and public health and mental health professionals need to be the lead responders, not law enforcement.

She advocated for a city and countywide response plan led by harm reduction experts, particularly as the county nears the one-year anniversary of its declaration of a public health crisis. She also suggested a workgroup or advisory group spearheaded by harm reduction specialists to help execute response strategies.

Drug testing tools and Narcan can and do save lives, she said. While state leaders debate fentanyl testing strips’ legality at the Capitol, Graziani said leaders need to take immediate steps now to mitigate the addiction crisis impacting the region.

‘It can and has destroyed families’

Reed and Jeri Norman said their son Aaron passed away back in 2021 after taking a fentanyl-laced pill.

“It can and has destroyed families. When you lose a loved one, it doesn’t just affect us, it affects our children, our daughters,” Reed said.

  • family picture of the Norman's
  • Aaron Norman and Jeri Norman sitting by the fireplace
  • Aaron Norman sitting on the coach with a dog on his lap
  • Reed Norman and Aaron Norman sitting on a golf cart

It’s a loss that’s never gotten easier to handle.

“It’s shattering. It really is here we are over. It’s been over two years ago, it still hurts just as much now that did on day one,” Jeri said.

The Normans said they are encouraged by the work that’s out there to address this public health crisis. They’d also like to see more education and awareness in schools to help teach young people about the dangers of drugs.

“Get the word out that it is a real thing. And it’s not a friend to anybody. It can happen to anybody,” Reed said.

Background on the fentanyl crisis, combating it

Preliminary data released in November 2022 showed in the first six months of the year, there were 118 fentanyl-related overdose deaths, meaning someone died of an overdose and had fentanyl in their system. It’s the exact same number Travis County saw in all 12 months of 2021.

At the time, Travis County paired up with Safe Haven Harm Reduction to train bartenders and get Narcan into local bars. Narcan is an overdose reversal treatment that is administered as a nasal spray and has no negative side effects if used on someone not experiencing an overdose.

Officials said in November several bars in Travis County, including Star Bar on Sixth Street, would get the training and the doses of Narcan.

Gov. Greg Abbott and state officials have also taken steps against fentanyl. Abbott launched an awareness campaign called “One Pill Kills” in October and said laws related to the drug would be considered in the 88th legislative session.

Abbott made addressing the state’s “growing fentanyl crisis” one of his key legislative priorities this session and announced more initiatives to combat the drug just weeks ago.