Jan 17, 2023 - News

Concerns grow as Austin-area fentanyl deaths rise

Illustration of an hourglass full of pills that have almost run out.

Illustration: Victoria Ellis/Axios

Janel Rodriguez, whose son Noah, a 15 year-old student at Johnson High School in Buda, died last year from a fentanyl overdose, tells Axios. Mounting Central Texas fentanyl overdose deaths have left parents, school administrators and public officials desperate to raise alarms.

Driving the news: At least four Hays CISD students have died from fentanyl poisoning since last summer — and there was a suspected fifth student overdose this month.

  • Travis County saw 118 fentanyl deaths in the first six months of 2022 — the same number as all of 2021.
  • Data has not yet been released for the second half of 2022.

Details: Fentanyl, a highly addictive synthetic opioid that the CDC says is up to 50 times more potent than heroin, is among the most common contributors to overdose deaths in the U.S. — and is a growing threat to teenagers.

Zoom in: From Cedar Park to Kyle, the deaths have crushed families, leaving some of them aching for ways to prevent further fatalities.

What they're saying: "​​I feel like people don't realize how serious the issue is — they feel like it won't happen to their kids," Janel Rodriguez, whose 15-year-old son Noah died last year from a fentanyl overdose, tells Axios.

  • Through her Forever 15 Project, which aims to broadcast the tell-tale signs of drug addiction and provide resources for those at risk or those who know someone at risk, Rodriguez booked a billboard between Kyle and Buda along I-35 that features photos of her son and two other boys who died from fentanyl overdoses. "Fentanyl steals your friends," the billboard says.
  • Austin-based billboard company MediaChoice has donated space to the group on seven other billboards around the state to get the message out.
  • "​​In my own grief, it's helped me, in my healing process," said Rodriguez, who has kept her 7-to-4 job as a routing manager for a pest control company.
A billboard on I-35.
A billboard warns of the dangers of fentanyl. Photo courtesy Janel Rodriguez

Zoom out: Travis County officials are now providing bars and bartenders with the overdose-reversing drug Narcan and are stepping up funding for addiction recovery programs.

  • Austin ISD also distributed Narcan doses to every district school in the fall.
  • Letters sent home to parents from the Round Rock school district included warnings about how vaping equipment is being repurposed to deliver fentanyl.
  • "The fragrant vape juices make these dangerous and highly-addictive drugs difficult to detect and can expose unknowing students to harmful and potentially deadly substances," says the Jan. 10 letter.

By the numbers: The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration seized over 379 million doses of potentially deadly fentanyl in 2022.

What's next: With the U.S.-Mexico border a major entry point for fentanyl, Gov. Greg Abbott has called for beefing up border security — and looks to continue making the connection during this years' legislative session.


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