Harris County commissioners approved an interlocal agreement with The University of Texas Health Science Center in Houston to study local efforts to reduce opioid overdoses on May 24.

Commissioners unanimously approved the agreement, which will receive a maximum backing of $306,841, according to the court’s May 24 agenda.

“I think we could always make more investments,” said Barbie Robinson, who serves as Harris County Public Health’s executive director. “I believe our behavioral health, substance abuse and mental health services are underfunded, given the prevalence in our county.”

As previously reported by Community Impact Newspaper, Opioid overdose deaths have steadily climbed in Texas during the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, rising from 4,154 deaths in 2020 to 4,831 deaths in 2021, according to the U.S. National Center for Health Statistics. Provisional NCHS data indicates there were an estimated 100,306 drug overdose deaths in the U.S. in 2021—an increase of 28.5% from 2020.

In Harris County, the number of drug overdose deaths similarly rose from 840 deaths that occurred between October 2019 and September 2020 to 1,039 deaths that occurred in the following 12 months, according to NCHS provisional data.

UTHealth Assistant Professor J. Michael Wilkerson will lead the evaluation, according to the interlocal agreement attached to the court’s May 24 agenda. The agreement will last until Aug. 31, unless terminated earlier.

“With our border issues now, and the drugs flowing freely, that's only gonna get worse,” Precinct 3 Commissioner Tom Ramsey said. “So anything we can do here from a preventative standpoint to just trying to take care of the tremendous need, that should be something that would receive a ... high priority.”

Before commissioners voted on the opioid overdose reduction agreement, Precinct 1 Commissioner Rodney Ellis asked Robinson if there were any other HCPH focuses that lacked funding. Robinson replied that more maternal and child health care programs are needed in Harris County communities.

“There is a tremendous need for those services and programs, and many [others] on the continuum of prevention as it relates to chronic disease, our HIV/AIDS prevention and intervention services, just to name a few,” Robinson said.

Jishnu Nair and Wesley Gardner contributed to this report.