Overdose Deaths Continue to Surge in Travis County

Medical examiner shows recent spike in long-term trend

Photo by Getty Images

At the end of April, nine Austinites died in the span of 27 hours. In one of the biggest spikes in overdose deaths the region has ever seen, at least 79 separate overdose incidents were recorded over just three days.

The Travis County Medical Examiner’s report, released yesterday, bears out that this is not a fluke but part of a concerning trend: Travis County has a higher rate of overdose deaths than every other urban Texas county.

The 2023 Medical Examiner’s report outlines that drug overdose remains the number one cause of accidental death in the county for the third year in a row, ahead of car crashes. That is largely attributable to fentanyl, a synthetic opioid 50 times stronger than heroin. In 2023, total accidental overdoses increased by 17%, and fentanyl-related overdose deaths increased by 14% from 2022. That isn’t as bad as the spike we saw from 2019-2022. Fentanyl was involved in only 12% of drug deaths in 2019 – but by 2022, that climbed to 59% of all accidental drug deaths, and 100% in people 20 years old and younger. All nine people who died in the recent overdose spike had fentanyl in their toxicology reports.

Law enforcement is still investigating the source of the fentanyl that led to the surge. On May 1, APD announced that it might be pursuing drug-induced homicide charges for those connected, after a new law passed in 2023 made it possible to charge someone with murder for distributing fentanyl that causes a death. Research has borne out that these laws have dissuaded people from calling 911 during an overdose, which could actually increase the likelihood of death. In a press release May 2, the Texas Harm Reduction Alliance – which has worked closely with the county to try to curb overdoses in the last few years – wrote, “Drug war tactics, including the surveillance and prosecution of people who use drugs, and the use of drug-induced homicide charges will never be a solution to the overdose epidemic. These laws create a distraction from governmental policy failures.”

Travis County Judge Andy Brown has taken cues since 2022 from THRA and other community groups that stress treatment, rather than punishment. The county declared a public health crisis in 2022 and has been steadily investing in harm reduction and prevention strategies. In FY 2024, Travis County invested $860,000 in methadone treatment services, peer recovery support staff, and the rental of syringe collection kiosks, all of which will be continued in FY 2025, according to a county press release. In response to the most recent surge, Brown’s office is requesting another $350,000 in the FY 2025 budget for an overdose prevention emergency fund.

“We’re continuing to work with our local, state, and federal partners to fund effective overdose prevention programs and support services,” said Brown in a press conference Thursday. “We must do more to address this public health crisis and save lives.”

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