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Travis County Saw A Surge In Overdoses In 2020. Advocates Hope The County Takes Steps To Stop Deaths.

Travis County advocates called on officials to expand access to Naloxone, a drug that counteracts the effects of opioid overdoses.
Miguel Gutierrez Jr.
Advocates called on officials to expand access to Naloxone, a drug that counteracts the effects of opioid overdoses.

Advocates and health care professionals are calling on Travis County to do more to prevent deaths from drug overdoses after the area saw a nearly 40% increase in deaths last year than in 2019.

All told, 262 people died in the Austin area in 2020 as a result of accidental overdose, according to preliminary numbers from the Department of State Health Services.

Selena Xie, an Austin-Travis County medic and nurse, said the increase is due in part to increased drug use during the pandemic and noted that those seeking treatment for substance abuse had fewer options over the past year and a half.

Xie also said medics are seeing more overdoses because the deadly opioid fentanyl is finding its way into more non-opioid drugs like Xanax.

"We’ve just seen a lot more overdoses when patients have no idea that they were ingesting a narcotic, and I just think we’re going to see this [become] much more prevalent in the community," she said. "Not only do we need to warn the community about this, but we also need to take really reasonable measures to help people make sure they know what they’re ingesting."

Xie joined the Texas Harm Reduction Alliance on Tuesday to call on the county to increase access to Naloxone — a drug that reverses the effects of opioid overdoses — and expand access to tests that allow Austinites to see if their drugs contain fentanyl.

The coalition also called on Austin and Travis County to prioritize harm-reduction strategies, add methadone to Central Health's health care plans for low-income Austinites and dedicate $100 million in federal aid to house people experiencing homelessness, who disproportionately suffer from substance abuse issues.

Overdoses per capita in Austin have increased by more than 80% since 2015, according to state data. Xie said she worries the increase could become a new normal.

"I think it's [been] a really, really hard year, so I think a lot of these things are explainable, but we don't see signs of that being reversed right now," she said. "And I am very concerned about a possible trend of more and more drug overdoses."

Corrected: September 10, 2021 at 4:23 PM CDT
An earlier version of this story said there were 512 overdose-related deaths in 2020. The Texas Harm Reduction Alliance has since revised lowered the total to 262.

Andrew Weber is a general assignment reporter for KUT, focusing on criminal justice, policing, courts and homelessness in Austin and Travis County. Got a tip? You can email him at Follow him on Twitter @England_Weber.
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