TRAVIS COUNTY, Texas (KXAN) — Travis County commissioners declared a public health crisis Tuesday in response to a growing number of drug overdose deaths that have been reported in Central Texas parallel to a national trend. It passed unanimously.

The declaration not only aims to educate people on the dangers of illicit drug use — specifically the possibility of drugs being mixed with fentanyl — and the resources available in Travis County, but will also shuffle money to prevention efforts, naloxone availability and funding for harm reduction staff.

“I would give anything if this would have been done 2, 3, 4, 8 years ago,” said Carilu Bell, who lost her son, Casey Dean Copeland, to fentanyl in August. “I’m glad they’re finally trying to get this done.”

The declaration comes weeks after the publishing of the Travis County Medical Examiner’s 2021 report which showed for the first time in a decade 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,” Travis County Judge Andy Brown told KXAN after the report was published.

As a part of that declaration, commissioners voted to do the following:

  • Declare a public health crisis
  • Raise awareness of the risk of overdose deaths, the dangers of fentanyl and resources available in Travis County
  • Move $350,000 from the general fund to overdose prevention efforts. It will break down to roughly $150,000 for naloxone and overdose prevention kits and $200,000 to staff harm reduction distribution efforts
  • Look into additional methods for disposing hazardous material
  • Analyzing current county best practices when it comes to mental health, behavioral health and substance use treatment

“As overdose deaths continue to surge, we need to meet this crisis by putting resources into communities most at risk. That’s exactly what this declaration does,” said Paulette Soltani, director of organizing at Texas Harm Reduction Alliance. 

Bell said the funding for resources is encouraging, but as someone who has been deeply impacted by this crisis, it’s the educational aspect she’s most grateful for.

“It could happen to you, or your loved one, or someone you know,” Bell said. “I was I’m very blessed to have had my son for 44 years, but my heart breaks even more for these parents that are losing their young teens.”

Meanwhile, speakers at Tuesday’s commissioners meeting asked the county to help groups already doing the work and continue to push for harm reduction tools.

“I have made it thus far because of harm reduction,” one of the speakers said at Tuesday’s commissioners meeting. He said without those services people will die and “dead people don’t recover.”

Casey Dean Copeland and his mom. Copeland died after taking a pill that was laced with fentanyl in 2021 (courtesy Carilu Bell)

Commissioners directed staff and stakeholder groups to come back with updates every month. They also directed Travis County intergovernmental affairs to show support for the legalization and access to fentanyl testing strips and expansion of Good Samaritan laws.

The declaration proposal was brought forward by Judge Brown and Commissioner Margaret Gómez. The agenda item was stalled last week so Travis County leaders could have further discussion with resource groups about what would be most useful to them.

You can read the entirety of the declaration here.

Rally being held next month

The Association of People Against Lethal Drugs is hosting a national rally on June 3. One will take place in Austin.

Bell, along with other families of drug overdose and fentanyl victims, will beat the Texas Governor’s Mansion from 4p.m.-7p.m. You can find event details here.