What Travis County is doing as overdose deaths total 246 in 2020

Travis County
Counterfeit oxycodone pills confiscated by the Cedar Park Police Department

Counterfeit oxycodone pills confiscated by the Cedar Park Police Department. (Cedar Park Police Department Photo)

AUSTIN (KXAN) — A recent sobering statistic from amid the pandemic — 100,000 people died of an overdose between April 2020 and April 2021 — prompted Travis County to release its own information about what that impact looked like here. Two hundred and forty-six people died of an overdose in the county in 2020, according to the county — a 30% increase from the year before.

Travis County said it was the second-leading cause of accidental death in 2020. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, one of the factors that led to an increase in these deaths is the accidental ingestion of fentanyl, which can appear in counterfeit pills.

Fentanyl-laced Xanax was linked to the death of University of Texas Longhorns linebacker Jake Ehlinger earlier this year. Separately, a July KXAN investigation profiled a family who lost their son to a counterfeit pill overdose and found Travis County is on pace for a 25% increase in fentanyl-related deaths in 2021 compared to the previous year, according to data from the Travis County Medical Examiner’s Office.

The recent heightened national awareness prompted the Travis County District Attorney’s Office to release its plan to reduce those types of deaths. It includes raising awareness and partnering with local organizations to do so, as well as providing life-saving drugs like naloxone, which can help reverse an overdose, and training to communities. A release also outlined a goal of providing resources and working to change policy.

“Changes in the law may be necessary to ensure public officials and public health providers can make tools available, like fentanyl test strips, that can prevent the accidental ingestion of fentanyl. Accurate and timely data is necessary to pursue evidence-based solutions. Local Public Health Officials commit to increasing resources available for education, training, treatment, and life-saving medications like naloxone,” the release said.

The Travis County DA’s office also mentioned the previous administration had declined to prosecute people with small amounts of narcotics, but added it had chosen to amend that policy and add an exception “when law enforcement believes that failure to arrest would be a threat to public safety.”

In addition, the DA’s office pledged to give $15,000 from its discretionary fund to the SIMS Foundation, which provides mental health and substance abuse recovery services to those tied to the music industry.

Travis County District Attorney José Garza, Travis County Judge Andy Brown and County Attorney Delia Garza all pledged to take steps to address the issue they called a “public health crisis,” with the support of Texas State Rep. Gina Hinojosa and Rep. Donna Howard. A number of local safety officials, public health organizations and music industry leaders also signed a letter in support of the effort.

There will be a free music event on Dec. 4 called “Safer Together: Overdose Prevention & Harm Reduction Saves Lives,” put on by the SIMS Foundation and Red River Cultural District, according to the release.

The event is free, but donations are accepted. All donations will go to the SIMS Foundation, which provides mental health and substance use recovery services for music artists, their families and people in the music industry.

The concert will feature nine different music performances from 8 p.m. to 2 a.m. across three local venues: Mohawk (indoor), The Green Jay and Empire (garage). More lineup details will be announced soon.

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