New overdose data collection app from UT launches in Texas

Raiyan Shaik, General News Reporter

UT’s Project CONNECT, an initiative to improve overdose reporting, started rolling out its app in Texas this year to maintain a comprehensive system of overdose data.

Overdoses are significantly underreported as state data is collected from medical records and law enforcement, according to the website. The app, called TxCOPE, allows anyone to anonymously report any overdose, which is then collected in a secure data warehouse to inform harm reduction efforts.

“TxCOPE is designed to not only collect data on fatal overdoses, but to understand non-fatal overdoses, identify hotspots in the community and drug trends,” said Kasey Claborn, lead investigator for TxCOPE and director of the Addiction Research Institute at UT.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates about 5,000 Texans died from overdoses from August 2021 to August 2022, but experts believe the number to be an undercount.

Additionally, Texas doesn’t have a Good Samaritan law for drug overdoses, which protects individuals seeking medical attention for a drug overdose. The risk of prosecution makes people less inclined to report, said Katie McCormick, a graduate research assistant with the project.

“We can’t talk about drug use without talking about the criminalization of drug use,” McCormick said. “Oftentimes, that fear and distrust plays a role in reporting the overdoses. It’s a medical issue, and it shouldn’t be a criminal justice issue.”

Although different harm reduction groups collect overdose data, there is little communication across those groups, Claborn said. Project CONNECT partnered with harm reduction groups across four counties, including Travis County, to develop the app. 

The project also has a community advisory board including health professionals, outreach workers and individuals with lived overdose experiences.

“Harm reduction workers and those who are actively involved in overdose prevention efforts are the closest to the problem,” McCormick said. “This app is really just harnessing that community-based knowledge to paint that bigger picture of what’s actually happening in Texas because our current mechanisms aren’t capturing that.”

TxCOPE also contains information on procedures in case of an overdose and how to obtain overdose-saving drugs like Narcan. It also collects data in real time which creates a more up-to-date database. State reported data is about three to six months old.

“We need to understand trends in real time, so that we can better serve our community in a data driven manner,” Claborn said.

The project began in 2019 when the Texas Targeted Opioid Response initiative reached out to Claborn to find a solution to the opioid data problem in Texas. A federal grant from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services funded TxCOPE along with other partners.

“Having accurate data can inform our policymakers about what the epidemic looks like on a local level,” McCormick said. “It informs local, targeted resource distribution policy decisions, as well as the funding realm.

Project CONNECT will continue to improve the app and increase overdose-related resources within TxCOPE to support outreach and harm reduction workers, Claborn said.

“It’s a tragic increase from previous numbers, and 2022 is expected to be the deadliest on record,” Claborn said. “The overdose crisis is continuing to worsen every year. Having better data sources so data (can) drive our action is imperative. We were losing too many lives at this point.”