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Draft resolution targets opioid epidemic

Tuesday, June 14, 2022 by Willow Higgins

City Council is set to consider a resolution this week that would declare opioid overdoses a public health crisis and increase support services needed to address the issue.

Members of the Public Health Committee, all of whom are co-sponsoring the draft resolution, met last week to discuss the item as it will appear on Council’s next agenda. The initiative, which is spearheaded by Council Member Vanessa Fuentes, comes after a similar resolution was passed in 2018 but lacked the funding to be carried out.

The resolution would employ a number of short- and long-term strategies aimed at reducing deaths from opioids like hydrocodone, fentanyl and heroin. Opioid overdose deaths doubled this March in Austin, jumping from 60 to 120, part of an upward trend of people dying from drug use in the area and nationwide.

Fuentes and the rest of the Public Health Committee had conversations with regional harm reduction experts to establish a plan that addresses the overdose crisis, building on previous work from the city. The Texas Harm Reduction Alliance, one of the city’s major partners on the initiative, presented its take on what the Austin area needs to do to reduce the risk of death from opioid use.

Many of THRA’s suggestions are embraced in the draft resolution. They include strategies like equipping and training first responders and city departments, like the Austin Public Library and Parks and Recreation, with naloxone, an opioid overdose-reversing drug; increasing partnerships and services to expand access to treatment options; increasing access to medication-assisted treatment like buprenorphine and methadone to help people safely come off opioids; expanding a partnership with the Community Health Paramedic Program; creating a comprehensive local plan of action that prioritizes prevention strategies and support services for substance use disorders; creating a data dashboard that collates information about overdoses in the area; and updating their legislative agenda to support legislation like legalizing fentanyl test strips and opposing bills that increase criminal punishment for individuals experiencing an overdose.

The resolution City Council passed in 2018 was intended to be a comprehensive action plan to target opioid use and prevent the epidemic from getting to the point where it is today. The city was planning on obtaining federal funding from an initiative out of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, but a miscalculation occurred and the funding opportunity was withdrawn. While some components of the previous resolution were worked on, some were not.

“I think the will was there, I think the initial work was there, but there was obviously not funding provided to do the work,” Mayor Steve Adler told the Public Health Committee. “So I think it’d be really helpful as we go into this next budget session to have specifically called out for what it would take to be able to do this work so that we actually get the opportunity to prioritize.”

Still, the opioid crisis has shifted since 2018; drugs that cause overdoses are always changing, as are public health strategies to target the crisis. The new resolution, if adopted, will include a more up-to-date plan.

“We certainly made efforts in the past and those were good and, you know, maybe we didn’t finish everything we thought, but regardless, this is an evolving crisis,” Council Member Ann Kitchen said. “Having the work of our folks on the ground reminding us and coming back to us and saying this is what’s not working and this is what needs ramping up, we would need that regardless of what we had passed in the past.”

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