Travis County commissioners declared a public health crisis on Tuesday in response to the surging number of drug overdose deaths in the Central Texas region.
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The crisis declaration will appropriate $350,000 from the county budget to harm reductions measures that include training outreach staff and expanding access to high-impact harm reduction tools like naloxone, a medicine that rapidly reverses an opioid overdose.
The county will also develop plans for safe disposal of hazardous material such as used syringes. Before the unanimous vote, the Commissioners Court modified the resolution to include monthly report backs for the court on the overdose crisis–an important step for impacted communities to be heard.
Advocates say a city-county strategy is necessary to address overdose deaths through community investment and engagement.
“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.
“We want to thank Judge Brown, Commissioner Gomez, and the Commissioners Court for taking action. These funds will go towards building the critical harm reduction infrastructure we so badly need and will give our communities on the ground a voice.”
The declaration comes after a May 3rd Town Hall meeting between county officials and community members. County residents and frontline workers shared their personal testimonies about struggles with substance use, homelessness, and incarceration. The Texas Harm Reduction Alliance (THRA), which sponsored the town hall, said the county’s previous response to these struggles worsened the mental health crises.
“We know that poor folks are targeted in this community. We know that black, brown, and indigenous people are targeted for drug use in this community even though all of us have used drugs before,” said Cate Graziani, Co-Executive Director of THRA, speaking at the meeting.
“Really the war on drugs is more than just a war on the drugs, it is a war on drug users. That’s why we see the outcomes that we’re seeing. I think one of the cruelest parts of the war on drugs is that it has seeped into our hearts and our minds.
It has made us believe that not only is drug use bad but drug users are bad, that they don’t deserve dignity and respect. … That’s why we’re in the worst overdose crisis that we have ever seen.”
The Travis County Medical Examiner outlined the crisis in its 2021 annual report, which showed that 308 people died of preventable overdose in Travis County in 2021—up by more than 50 deaths from 2020. Fentanyl related deaths were up 237% to 118, more than one-third of the overdose deaths reported last year.
Preventable overdose deaths are now the leading cause of accidental deaths in Travis County, more than car accidents and homicides. Texas witnessed 5,033 drug overdose deaths in 2021, a 19.8% increase from the previous year, growing at a rate higher than the national average.