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UT Austin researchers are creating a statewide system to track drug overdoses

A Narcan kit, typically handed out by the Williamson County Mobile Outreach Team, which connects people using substances with local resources. Narcan is an opioid reversal medication that can help people avoid dying from an overdose.
Michael Minasi
/
KUT
A Narcan kit, typically handed out by the Williamson County Mobile Outreach Team, which connects people using substances with local resources. Narcan is an opioid reversal medication that can help people avoid dying from an overdose.

A team out of UT Austin is launching a platform that tracks drug overdoses across Texas.

As opioid and other drug overdoses rise in the state, the researchers hope the program — known as Project CONNECT — will provide a more complete understanding of the state’s overdose crisis and help guide solutions. Texas has seen about a 30% increase in drug overdoses during the COVID-19 pandemic.

One hurdle to solving the problem is a lack of consistent and accurate data, says Kasey Claborn, lead researcher for the project and an assistant professor at Dell Medical School and the Steve Hicks School of Social Work. Many overdoses go unreported, and there’s not a statewide system for collecting data on both fatal and nonfatal overdoses.

“We just have a dearth of data, particularly in our rural communities, and we really don't have a way right now to actually track when spikes are occurring in real time,” Claborn said. “So, the goal of this platform is to start doing that.”

The project is being led by developers, designers and researchers from Dell Med and the School of Social Work. The team created a digital reporting platform called TxCOPE.org that allows people to anonymously report overdoses — fatal or nonfatal. The platform asks for the location, type of drug involved and some demographic information.

“Anyone can report an overdose,” Claborn said. “And we're encouraging people whenever you hear about an overdose, to go to the TxCOPE platform and submit an overdose report.”

The data is then delivered to organizations that work directly with people at risk of overdosing to help inform community-response efforts. For example, Claborn said, it can help these groups determine where resources like naloxone, a medicine that reverses opioid overdose, should be allocated.

“It’ll also help to give us a robust picture of the state as to where different treatment resources may be needed,” she said. “If we see particular hotspots, then we’ll be able to, in closer to real time, actually engage in action-oriented response efforts.”

Right now, the data collected by the platform is not available to the public; the team first focused on building data dashboards for harm-reduction groups. The researchers are preparing to roll out more phases of the project in early 2022, including public data dashboards, as well as digital platforms tailored to first responders and health care providers.

Organizations can also use the TxCOPE site to order supplies, such as naloxone, and access substance use and mental health resources.

In this first phase of the program, Project CONNECT is working with harm-reduction organizations in Travis, Williamson, Bexar and El Paso counties. The team will scale up to other organizations across the state early next year.

In the Austin area, leaders have been trying to combat a surge of overdose-related deaths. Last year, 246 Travis County residents died from drug-related overdoses — a 35% increase from 2019.

During a press conference Thursday, Selena Xie, president of the Austin EMS Association, said responses to overdoses doubled during the pandemic, as many people were unable to get their typical help and treatment.

“The pandemic created a lot of additional mental health stress on people, causing relapses,” she said. “Another category of things that we’re seeing are fentanyl being laced and all sorts of drugs that people have no idea.”

To raise awareness about overdoses, the Travis County District Attorney’s office is partnering with local organizations to host a free music festival on Saturday called “Safer Together: Overdose Prevention & Harm Reduction Saves Lives.” The festival will feature concerts at The Green Jay, Empire Control Room and Mohawk starting at 8 p.m. There will also be resources to raise awareness and connect people with services for information and recovery.

KUT's Allyson Ortegon contributed to this report.

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