Travis County judge considers declaring public health crisis due to increase of drug overdose deaths

A Travis County judge is considering declaring a public health crisis in response to a rapid increase of drug overdose deaths.

This week, the Travis County Medical Examiner's Office released the Travis County Medical Examiner Annual Report 2021, which details the numbers and types of deaths the office investigated last year. 

The report shows that the leading cause of accidental deaths in 2021 was drug overdoses. Fentanyl was involved in a third of those overdoses. Overall, fentanyl-related deaths were up 237% compared to the year before. More people died from fentanyl than homicide in 2021, according to the report.

"There's no other word to describe this other than a crisis or an emergency or a disaster," said Paulette Soltani, director of organizing for the Texas Harm Reduction Alliance.

She interviewed via Zoom with FOX 7 while in New York visiting other harm reduction organizations. She recently moved to Texas to start working at THRA.

"I've seen friends die. I see friends that are still struggling to get the help that they need, and that’s what all my coworkers are doing," said Soltani. "A lot of people have direct experience with the stuff that our communities are going through, and (we want to) meet this problem, not with stigma and criminalization and punishment, but to actually humanize what's going on and meet people with love and care and compassion."


Last week, the organization held a town hall to spark awareness, and it captured the attention of Travis County Judge Andy Brown. The report also captured his attention.

"I don't want anyone to use opioids or other illegal drugs, but if they do, it shouldn't be a death sentence," said Judge Brown.

Judge Brown brought up three, tangible steps he’d like to see taken: 

  • Legalizing fentanyl strips
  • Providing more Narcan to the community
  • Obtaining more funding to put towards mental health assistance and recovery centers that need resources.

"There are people who try to get maybe onto methadone or onto other drugs that are meant to get people off of illegal opioids, and there's a waitlist because there’s not enough," said Judge Brown.

Both Judge Brown and Soltani noted the complexity of the issue, but they are hoping to get the ball rolling with more funding and more awareness.

"Yes, we need fentanyl testing strips, yes, we need more Narcan; those are the most basic solutions that we could ask for, and we need so much more than that," said Soltani, whose organization does offer fentanyl testing strips to the community, along with safe smoking kits and safe syringes.

Judge Brown and Soltani also reflected on how the community came together during the worst of the pandemic, hoping to replicate that.

"Local governments, state governments, the federal government…we were able to declare COVID the emergency that it was to infuse resources into the problem and get people what they needed," said Soltani.

Judge Brown will present the issue at the Travis County Commissioner’s Court meeting on Tuesday, May 17. One specific topic of discussion will be Narcan. He said the county attorney will help them figure out how the county can best play a role in making the medication more available to the community.