As the number of opioid-related deaths rise, Travis County and Austin officials are partnering alongside local organizations in combating the impact of opioids in the community.

In 2023, drug overdoses were the No. 1 cause of accidental deaths in the county, according to the Travis County Medical Examiner Annual Report. The 2023 report was released weeks after Austin-Travis County Emergency Medical Services and additional agencies responded to a wave of mass opioid overdoses from April 29 to May 3, including 79 suspected overdoses and nine suspected deaths, ATCEMS Division Chief Angela Carr said.

While fentanyl-related deaths continue to increase each year, the rate of increase slowed from 108% to 14% from 2021-22 to 2022-23, according to the report. Local leaders and organizations said collaborative intervention efforts, including an increased availability of naloxone, are making a difference, but there is still more work to be done.

“We all need to do more until we have met the need of the community ... so that people can get their lives stabilized and to where they're not at risk of overdosing,” Travis County Judge Andy Brown told Community Impact about collaborating with the city of Austin, state and local agencies.

The approach

Travis County Commissioners Court, ATCEMS, Austin Public Health and community organizations have joined forces to increase the prevalence of naloxone in the county in recent years, officials said. The medication, also known as Narcan, reverses opioid overdoses.

After declaring a public health crisis in 2022, the county invested about $860,000 in purchasing Narcan, methadone treatment services and peer recovery support programs, Brown said.

Austin Public Health is distributing 15,000 naloxone kits through its new Breathe Now program launched in partnership with ATCEMS in May, said Dr. Desmar Walkes, APH Medical Director and Health Authority. The health department received $2 million in 2023 to hire peer support specialists and purchase naloxone, Walkes said.

“We've also been building our capacity of people who are trained in our community to use naloxone with the hope that it will become like CPR,” Walkes said.

ATCEMS provides opioid users with medication-assisted treatment through its Buprenorphine Bridge Program, Carr said. Buprenorphine helps prevent opioid withdrawal symptoms until a patient can receive long-term care, which reduces the risk of relapsing, she said.

Dr. Ziyad Nuwayhid, chief medical officer for Integral Care, said the number of patients needing buprenorphine medication services increased by around 50% following the surge of overdoses in late April.

Nonprofits Urban Alchemy, Texas Harm Reduction Alliance and Communities for Recovery have distributed Narcan, educated residents on how to prevent overdoses and connected opioid users to support services through their outreach teams. THRA offers a drop-in center where people can receive the supplies they need to use safely while giving them the resources to quit if they chose, said Darren Thornhill, a re-entry outreach specialist for THRA.

“It's the only way we'll be able to fight it,” said Kirkpatrick Tyler, Urban Alchemy chief of government and community affairs, about organizations collaborating to fight the opioid crisis. “We will not be able to fight the opioid crisis from one man. It will take the community.”

Why it matters

Local leaders and groups said they’re seeing successful results from their initiatives to combat opioid overdoses. About 80% of people in Travis County have received a dose of naloxone when emergency services arrive compared to 60% of people nationally, Walkes said.

“That indicates to me that the community is using Narcan and saving lives as a result,” Brown said.

Brown told Community Impact he believes the number of opioid-related deaths during the late April incident would’ve been much higher three years ago before the county introduced several new preventative efforts.

Educating more residents around opioid use is important as many individuals unknowingly consume opioids from laced drugs, Carr said. Only 5% of drug-related deaths were due to fentanyl alone while 95% involved the presence of more than one drug in 2023, Travis County Chief Medical Examiner Keith Pinckard said at a May 23 press conference.

“If we can disseminate that message that it is a problem; it is something that can happen to you and that it is something that you can prevent by not interacting with those drugs, that's the best place to start,” Carr said.

Going forward

On April 30, Commissioners Court signed an agreement with Texans Connecting Overdose Prevention Efforts to obtain more data to track where overdoses are occurring, including data from ATCEMS and local nonprofits such as THRA, Brown said. The county will continue to look to expand access to Narcan, he said.

“I’d like every bar, every restaurant, every school, every public gathering place to have Narcan,” Brown said.

APH will work with the University of Texas’ College of Pharmacy to educate medical providers on opioid substance use treatment and prevention over the coming weeks, Walkes said.

THRA is looking to obtain a second location in North Austin. The group’s partner organization, Vocal Texas, is advocating for the state to legalize fentanyl test strips that would allow individuals to test drugs before use, Thornhill said. While test strips would be ideal in preventing opioid overdoses from occurring, they are not an option in Texas, Walkes said.

“I would love to see people calling your ... state representative and saying, ‘Hey, we need to legalize fentanyl strips,’” said Darrin Acker, Communities for Recovery executive director. “We need to be doing more to support safer use and recognize that that's how we save lives.”