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‘They’re like walking corpses,’ bar owner says of Texas K2 outbreak

AUSTIN, Texas (KXAN) – A threat to public safety and public health is gaining new attention from the city of Austin. In the last five years, Austin-Travis County EMS has treated thousands of people for K2 overdoses, a problem city leaders have noticed only seems to be getting worse.

So far Wednesday, 43 patients have been treated and 18 sent to the hospital. Since 2012, medics have treated nearly 5,700 people for bad reactions to K2. Calls rose to record levels in 2015, with more than 400 calls that June. Since then, the numbers remained high. The second largest uptick was just this past December.

The spike in cases only tell part of the story.

Police and EMS both say responding to the incidents has strained resources, but the problem has yet to come up at an Austin City Council meeting. The mayor’s office tells us it’s now pressing for information, to help determine what more needs to be done and how the city council can get involved. Downtown venue owners say the city’s involvement is critical.

“It seems like they’re putting out fires and at the same time that they put out one fire, another one starts,” Jason McNeely said. In the last year and a half that he’s owned Barracuda, a bar and music venue on East Seventh Street near Red River, he’s only seen the fire of K2 downtown grow.

“It’s like a scene out of ‘The Walking Dead.’ They’re like walking corpses,” he said. “I decided to start taking videos because it’s just kind of unreal. You can’t believe the things we see down here.”

McNeely told WISH-TV’s sister station KXAN he’s now seeing bodies in the streets, “just people that you can’t tell if they’re alive or dead.” He said it’s clear people who come upon these situations don’t know what to do. The only thing you really can do, McNeely said, is call ATCEMS.

“I’m always thinking to myself, ‘remember the good ol’ days of crack and heroin?’ Where you knew what to expect from people?” McNeely said, speaking to the wide range of effects K2 can have depending on the person, and the dose.

“In many cases, we see them having seizures,” ATCEMS Commander Mike Benavides explained, saying in other K2 case “we’ve seen people that are combative and act out with violent tendencies.”

ATCEMS says it recently learned the spikes are only some of what its medics are seeing. KXAN asked Benavides about a tweet they put out Tuesday, that read, “K2 UPDATE: See graphic for Incident & Patient totals #ATCEMSMedics have responded to since midnight. #TheNewNormal”

“What we were trying to convey, not only to the media but to the community and to the public is that our medics have been seeing these K2 type of numbers and responding to these K2 incidents for years,” Benavides said.

The data just didn’t reflect that – not until now. On Monday, ATCEMS instituted a “K2 alert,” much like a trauma or stroke alert, for example. “We’re able to convey what they’re seeing in a more real time and accurate basis – on a daily basis,” Benavides said.

The result is a clearer picture of exactly how many incidents are happening and where. Hint: it’s not just downtown.

“We’ve been seeing a surge further in east Austin and in southeast Austin, where we’re starting to see some of those upticks,” he said, adding they’re not sure if that’s because K2 is growing in that part of town or because first responders are providing so much attention to the downtown corridor, that users and distributors are relocating.

From March 1, 2012 to Feb. 28, 2017, the ATCEMS reports the top five locations with the highest K2 patient contact numbers were:

  1. 500 E. 7th St. (The Austin Resource Center for the Homeless)
  2. 3154 E. SH 71 (Austin Transitional Center)
  3. 6th St./Neches St.
  4. 7th St./Neches St.
  5. 501 E. 8th St. (The Salvation Army)

“I don’t want this to become the norm any more. This isn’t normal,” McNeely said. “The community needs to see what’s happening down here.”

Mayor Pro Tem and downtown city council representative Kathie Tovo has also been asking city staff for more information on what all the city is doing to get a grasp on K2 incidents. She did a walking tour of the area that sees the most cases last week, saying ATCEMS’s declaration of a “mass casualty incident” and recent arrests caught her attention.

KXAN also reached out to the Downtown Austin Alliance, which acknowledged K2 has become a significant problem in Austin.

In a statement, Vice President of Operations Bill Brice said,

This isn’t just a homeless problem. K2 dealers prey upon all people, particularly those of lower socio-economic levels, as K2 is inexpensive. Even with new state laws that went into effect in September 2015 making any substance mimicking the effects of banned narcotics illegal, it is still difficult and time consuming to convict people for possession and/or delivery of this substance. However, the Downtown Alliance is very encouraged by not only APD’s enforcement efforts, but also the work of the District Attorney to effectively prosecute K2 offenders. Solving this problem requires more than effective criminal justice action and EMS response. It should be dealt with as a public health emergency.”

Mayor Steve Adler, city of Austin staff and Travis County Integral Care plan to further discuss the city’s response to the rise K2 incidents at 12:30 p.m. on Thursday at City Hall.

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