Opioid overdose deaths on the rise in Travis County

Austin Public Health released a study showing an increase in opioid overdose deaths in Travis County over the last 10 years. On average about 125 people in Travis County die from a drug overdose each year, 42 percent of them due to opioids. 

Part of the reason for the increase is the introduction of fentanyl-laced drugs.

The synthetic opioid painkiller is 100 times more powerful than morphine and it's being found more often, not only in heroin, but also in other street drugs. “We're seeing an enormous increase in people overdosing,” said Mark Kinzly, interim executive director of the Austin Harm Reduction Coalition. 

Kinzly connects with people struggling with addiction and provides them with fentanyl test strips.  

“So people who are buying illicit drugs can test their drugs to make sure fentanyl's not in it,” Kinzly said.

He said there has been a dramatic increase in the number of tests showing up positive. “When we started first testing the drugs in Austin, in the community, it was around 30 percent. That was two years ago. It's upwards of almost 70 percent,” said Kinzly. 

It's no longer only heroin addicts who need to worry about the powerful synthetic opiate.

“Fentanyl's not only being found in heroin, fentanyl is being found in crack cocaine, methamphetamine, powder cocaine, so there's fentanyl in a lot of things people would not historically think they were in,” Kinzly said.  That's been contributing to the number of people overdosing and dying in Travis County. 

“There's definitely a lot of attention and concern regarding opioids nationally and so we needed to look at our own data to see what information we had just to get a handle on how big a problem it is locally,” said Dr. Phil Huang, medical director at Austin Public Health.  

Huang said opioid overdose deaths are increasing in the county. In 2016, 98 people died from opiates.  

“We have seen an increase since 2006, but the rates of what we're seeing are not as high as in some other parts of the country,” Huang said.   

To save more lives, Huang suggests those who often have contact with addicts carry Narcan, a drug that can sometimes reverse an overdose. He also encourages doctors to use prescription monitoring programs and believes adding more treatment options, including medication-based treatment, may help some users find a way out of addiction. 

Kinzly already hands out Narcan to addicts in the Austin area for free. However, he said because of the surge in fentanyl-laced drugs, the problem is likely going to get much worse. 

“This is the beginning of this, I have to tell you, which is a really scary thing to think about,” Kinzly.  

Kinzly believes the best way to reduce the number of addicts is to focus on the underlying causes of addiction. That includes things like trauma, unemployment, depression and homelessness.