TRAVIS COUNTY, Texas (KXAN) — More people are dying from fentanyl-related overdoses in Travis County than ever before, according to new data.

While we don’t usually get overdose death data until the medical examiner’s report comes out at the end of the year, Travis County Judge Andy Brown asked for numbers early this year.

They show in the first six months of 2022, 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.

In a news conference Monday, we got a better look at who those people are.

Women: More women died in the first six months of this year than in all of the previous one. In the first six months of 2022, 35 women died of fentanyl-related drug overdoses. In all of 2021, 24 females died.

Black and brown people: They are also seeing upticks in the latest round of data. In all of 2021, 19 Hispanic people died of fentanyl-related overdose deaths. In the first six months of this year, 29 have.

Five Black people died of the drug in the 12 months of 2021, while 14 have already died in the first half of this year.

“So the data is clear, fentanyl does not discriminate. It can impact and it is impacting all of us,” Brown said.

Local solutions

Travis County is pairing 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.

Several bars in Travis County, including Star Bar on Sixth Street, will get the training and the doses of Narcan.

“We certainly understand, especially today on a national level, the staffing shortages we’re seeing within APD and county and city emergency services, any bridge that we can provide to extend that lifeline… we’re more than happy to help with,” Max Moreland with FBR Management, the company that oversees the bars involved in this initiative, said.  

The county will vote during its session Tuesday to push $175,000 for providers to get harm reduction services to people.

Looking to the legislature

In 2021, Texas lawmakers passed and Gov. Greg Abbott signed a Good Samaritan Law which has been in effect since last September. House Bill 1694 protects some people from getting in trouble for small amounts of illegal drugs or having drug paraphernalia should they seek help for someone who is having a drug overdose.

But as addiction recovery advocates testified in 2021, some is the keyword — and the people protected are not the right some.

The law disqualifies many people from protection in Texas. Most notably, people who have been previously convicted of a drug offense and people who have called for medical assistance for an overdose in the last 18 months.

“Our Good Samaritan bill is garbage. It needs to be covered for everybody, not just the limited amount of support for people who call one time,” said Christie Mokry, executive director of Safe Haven Harm Reduction.

District Attorney José Garza of Travis County said though the state law is written the way it is, he will not prosecute people for calling 911 for an overdose in our county.

Travis County also wants the state legislature to legalize fentanyl testing strips, which could alert a drug user to fentanyl mixed into a drug. Fentanyl testing strips are classified under Texas law as drug paraphernalia, making them illegal to have.

During the 2021 legislative session, Jasmine Crockett, D-Dallas, managed to gain bipartisan support in her committee for a bill that would remove criminal penalties for possessing drug paraphernalia, but it never made it to the House floor for a vote.

“Oftentimes bills have to be introduced more than once before they finally become law,” Rep. James Talarico, D-Austin, told KXAN earlier this month. Talarico is one of the lawmakers taking the baton on harm reduction legislation this year.

House Bill 85, authored by Talarico, would decriminalize the testing strips. Reps. Sheryl Cole, D-Austin, and Tom Oliverson, a Republican representing Harris County, have filed similar bills. So has Sen. Sarah Eckhart, who also represents the Austin area.

“Currently 19 states in our country allow these test strips to be used to keep their citizens safe. But Texas is not one of them,” Talarico said.

It’s a state law that trickles down to local governments in their response to the fentanyl crisis. Judge Brown has been vocal about the frustrations the county has trying to get people harm reduction tools while being handcuffed by the state.

Casey Copeland’s story

Copeland wrote in his journal every day for six years. In it, he documents his goals, workouts and on a Monday last fall, he wrote three words: “Make Drs Appt.”

It was his last entry.

“I found him there on the bathroom floor,” Carilu Bell, Copeland’s mom, said. “And I had no idea what had happened. It wasn’t until I had gotten his toxicology report back.”

Casey Copeland's final journal entry
Casey Copeland’s final journal entry before dying a fentanyl poisoning in fall of 2021 (KXAN photo/Grace Reader)

Copeland, an Austinite in his early-40s, died after taking Valium mixed with fentanyl. His mom said he was struggling with depression after the pandemic hit, and she believes he didn’t know the drug was mixed.

Now, Bell spends much of her days trying to educate people on the dangers of fentanyl so families aren’t put through the same pain she has experienced over the last year.

“I’ll never be the same person that I was before, and as hard as I try, I have good days and I have not-so-good days, but it’s certainly been life-changing,” she said.

Casey Copeland died of fentanyl poisoning in 2021. Data shows in the first half of 2022, Travis County had the same number of fentanyl-related overdose deaths as it did in all of 2021 (KXAN photo/Grace Reader)
Casey Copeland died of fentanyl poisoning in 2021. Data shows in the first half of 2022, Travis County had the same number of fentanyl-related overdose deaths as it did in all of 2021. (KXAN photo/Grace Reader)

Copeland’s mom hopes the county’s data can convince people to educate themselves about the dangers of the drug, and other families like hers will be willing to share their stories to help spread the word.

“There are so many families that aren’t talking about it. They don’t want anyone to know that their child died of an illicit drug,” she said.