It’s been one year since Travis County declared drug deaths a public health crisis, and the numbers have gotten worse.

What happened

Local leaders and activists gathered at the Texas Harm Reduction Alliances’s front yard May 24 to commemorate the lives lost to overdoses and announce a loose plan for how to spend roughly $3 million the city and county received from opioid settlement funds.

The action taken
  • City and county officials will create a small committee of experts to inform them how the settlement funds should be spent, County Judge Andy Brown said.
  • In the coming weeks, the city will launch a dashboard with information on how many overdoses are happening locally and where residents can get Narcan and other harm reduction resources, Austin City Council member Vanessa Fuentes said at the conference.
  • Council is also planning on hiring a dedicated full-time staff member to increase harm reduction strategies in the city, Fuentes said.
The background

Throughout the past year, local leaders tackled the opioid crisis with community outreach programs; educational awareness campaigns; and increased access to overdose-reversing medication Narcan in bars, vending machines and the pockets of law enforcement officers.

Despite these increased efforts, the 2022 Medical Examiner’s report released in late April revealed fentanyl overdoses more than doubled from 2021 to 2022. Overdoses increased dramatically among Hispanic and Black communities and in women.

What the experts say

While Narcan saved hundreds of lives last year—an average of 53 a month, according to the THRA—co-Executive Director Cate Graziani said it has its weaknesses. For one, Narcan is administered when an overdose is already happening, not before. Plus, officials have struggled to keep the Narcan vending machines fully stocked due to funding shortages and a lack of streamlined oversight, Graziani said.

“It’s no one's job to replenish the vending machines,” Graziani said.

To effectively address the opioid crisis, Graziani said leaders need to increase access to preventive harm reduction tools, not just reactionary ones. However, a Texas bill to legalize fentanyl test strips—a tool that Graziani said could dramatically decrease drug deaths—stalled in the Senate Committee on Criminal Justice last month.

The test strips remain illegal with manufacturing fines up to $4,000 or a year of jail time and possession fines up to $500.

Dig deeper

Read more about Austin’s opioid crisis here.