A hypodermic needle lays on the ground near a cleanup site. Photo by Scott Ball.
A hypodermic needle lies on the ground near downtown San Antonio. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

In 2015, 32% of drug overdose deaths in Bexar County were attributed to heroin or prescription opioid overdose, resulting in 575 deaths. It is the leading cause of accidental death throughout the United States.

The devastating effects of opioids impact a wide demographic. San Antonio leads the state in infant opioid withdrawal, putting them at greater risk for respiratory and neurological diseases.

The Bexar County Commissioners Court met Tuesday and unanimously approved a resolution proposed by Judge Nelson Wolff to create a task force to fight the opioid epidemic, which is devastating communities both locally and nationally.

“We want to get a group together to start thinking about how we can provide a campaign to educate and [distribute] information about the hazards of synthetic and opioid compounds,” Wolff said.

Opioids are a family of drugs including prescription painkillers like hydrocodone, as well as illicit drugs like heroin. Often people resort to heroin after becoming addicted to opioids because it is more affordable.

The task force will review current law enforcement measures and educational campaigns “to try to curtail the use and distribution of these dangerous drugs across the nation.”

Collaborating with organizations such as the Metropolitan Health District and the San Antonio Police Department, the effort intends to increase both education and regulation throughout the city and surrounding areas.

“There are hospital regulations that could be put in place; the pharmaceutical industry could be a little more truthful about what they are pushing on everybody,” Wolff said. “And people don’t know what they are doing to themselves by taking these medications.”

Metro Health Director Colleen Bridger has experience working with opioid abuse from her time as health director in Orange County, N.C., which was the first county in the state where first responders administered Nolaxone, a drug that immediately reverses the effects of opioids.

“If you have a first responder who [is] able to administer Nolaxone, the [addicts are] much more likely to seek treatment for their drug addiction than if they didn’t have that interaction with the system,” Bridger said. Nolaxone blocks the effects of opioids, reverses an overdose, and gives the addicted individual the opportunity to participate in clear decision-making.

It is in those moments that change happens, Bridger said. If addicted individuals understand that “we care, and that [they] are important, it gives people the opportunity to change.”

Bridger will co-chair the task force.

Other points of focus may include prescription medication drop-off bins, where people can dispose of unused medications and reduce the potential for the prescription being misused, syringe exchange programs, and community education events.

“There are plenty of communities who have dealt with this issue before us. They have had a more acute situation than Texas,” Bridger said. “What we will be doing is looking at what has worked for others communities to prevent overdose and addiction.”

This resolution coincides with the bipartisan multi-state investigation that Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton joined in order to elucidate the role that marketing and sales have on prescription opioid abuse, and how they have contributed to the epidemic.

The percentage of deaths from opioid overdose in the U.S. has tripled since 2010. More than 2 million Americans suffered from substance use disorders related to prescription opioid pain relievers in 2012, and an estimated 467,000 were addicted to heroin.

The task force is an ongoing effort, with the County is still shaping what the team will look like and what the main points of focus will be.

Roseanna Garza

Roseanna Garza

Roseanna Garza reports on health and bioscience for the San Antonio Report.